Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri is the last enemy combatant imprisoned in this country. Yet four years after his arrest, government officials still cannot agree on what threat he posed.
In a new allegation, former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft says Al-Marri was sent to the United States a day before the Sept. 11 attacks to plan strikes on West Coast targets, including the tallest building in Los Angeles.
Ashcroft's claim -- made in a new book -- is the first time any U.S. official has directly linked Al-Marri to the West Coast attacks that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden allegedly hoped would follow the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.
Citing Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was captured and interrogated, Ashcroft wrote: "I believe KSM had planned to use Al-Marri to help facilitate this next wave of attacks focused on Los Angeles."
But three federal law enforcement officials asked about the allegation said they were mystified by Ashcroft's assertions. And a court document alleging that Al-Marri -- a U.S.-educated citizen of Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- has deep ties to Al Qaeda makes no mention of any role in an assault on the West Coast.
Plot broken up
Speaking confidentially because they did not want a public fight with the former attorney general, the Washington officials said the West Coast plot was broken up by arrests overseas that did not involve Al-Marri.
They said Al-Marri was sent to the United States as an Al Qaeda "sleeper agent" and was not assigned to prepare an attack on any specific target. With his wife and five children, they said Al Qaeda leaders hoped he could reside unnoticed in Peoria, Ill., where he had once lived and attended school.
"He was never given any assignment," said one of the officials familiar with government intelligence on the West Coast plot. "KSM may have considered him as an operative, but that's about it."
He acknowledged, however, that Ashcroft's contention "might still be a possibility."
The dispute is spilling onto the public stage as the Bush administration finds itself under mounting legal and public pressure to provide some form of justice for captives arrested in the U.S. and abroad. The disagreement also shows there are deep divisions within the government over what to make of enemy combatants.
Al-Marri's defense lawyers have repeatedly called on the government to either charge him with a crime or set him free, saying his endless solitary confinement at a Navy brig next to Charleston violates the founding principles of American jurisprudence.
But twice this year different federal judges in South Carolina have denied their request and ruled that the Bush administration can continue to legally -- and indefinitely -- hold Al-Marri as an enemy combatant.
Al-Marri's defense attorneys have appealed, and the government, seeking to cut them off again, recently signaled it may bring Al-Marri before a military tribunal similar to those planned for Mohammed and other detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Why Ashcroft is raising this assertion now is unclear. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
In his book, "Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice," Ashcroft said the second wave was "planned meticulously" by Mohammed with Al-Marri in mind. He wrote that Al-Marri was "part of an Al Qaeda advance team sent to the United States to facilitate the next round of terrorist attacks."
But of Al-Marri's arrest, Ashcroft wrote, "I believe it frustrated Al Qaeda's plans for new attacks. The Los Angeles plot unraveled due to international cooperation among America's allies."
David Ayres, Ashcroft's former chief of staff at the Department of Justice, said the department reviewed the book for accuracy and classified material. And others suggested the information must have been gleaned by Ashcroft from his four years as attorney general.
"Why would he make it up?" wondered Carl W. Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who has closely monitored the Al-Marri case.
Angry defense lawyers
Defense lawyers, however, are angry Ashcroft is making assertions that government prosecutors have never alleged in federal court here in Charleston. The attorneys theorize that Ashcroft is trying to make Al-Marri appear evil to support his own Justice Department policy of endlessly incarcerating enemy combatants.
"He's all spit and no sidewalk," defense lawyer Andrew J. Savage III of Charleston said of Ashcroft.
Jonathan L. Hafetz, a litigation specialist at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, who is assisting in the Al-Marri defense, was equally dismissive. "If they have that evidence, they should present it," Hafetz said. "Put up or shut up."
In an apparent reference to Mohammed, Ashcroft wrote that the information on Al-Marri came from a "detained senior Al Qaeda leader, whose credibility had been well established" and who identified Al-Marri as "an Al Qaeda sleeper operative, someone inside the country, lying low but working all the while for the enemy."
Mohammed, who was captured in March 2003, is known to have named Al-Marri as an Al Qaeda operative during his interrogations.
He also gave lengthy, written testimony in this year's trial of Sept. 11 collaborator Zacarias Moussaoui. He described the West Coast plot in detail, including the selection of the 73-story Library Tower (now the U.S Bank building), as one of the targets. But he did not name Al-Marri as a co-conspirator.
He added that Bin Laden personally "advised that a second wave attack should focus on the West, believing that security might be more lax there."
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney recently stated that Mohammed has provided reliable information.
But Hafetz said any statements from Mohammed should be discounted because Mohammed was allegedly tortured into talking by a controversial technique that simulates drowning. Al-Marri should be released now, he said, because "you can't hold somebody based on a statement from a guy who was water-boarded."
The three senior federal law enforcement officials in Washington sharply disagree with Ashcroft's premise that Al-Marri is a key figure in the West Coast plot. They said the scheme fell apart after a "handful" of other suspects were arrested overseas for involvement in the plot.
"This guy [Al-Marri] was never named by KSM [Mohammed] as being in the Library Tower plot," said one of the officials. "But he was put on the radar by KSM as a guy who was here stateside as a potential operator."
Al-Marri, now 40, was arrested in December 2001 in Peoria. He had earned a bachelor's degree in business administration there in 1991. He returned and enrolled to earn a graduate degree in computer science at Bradley University.
FBI agents found evidence that appeared to link him to Al Qaeda, but he was held on minor bank-card and credit-card fraud charges.
He was preparing for trial when Mohammed was arrested in March 2003 and began talking.
Three months later, in June 2003, the Bush administration abruptly designated Al-Marri an enemy combatant and moved him from a jail in Illinois to the Navy brig.
The two judges, federal Magistrate Judge Robert Carr F. and U.S. District Judge Henry F. Floyd, who upheld the enemy combatant designation, based their rulings on a partially declassified summary from Jeffrey N. Rapp, a senior defense intelligence officer.
The summary says "multiple intelligence sources" confirmed Al-Marri was sent to the United States to explore how to hack into computer systems and disrupt U.S. financial systems.
But it does describe Al-Marri as a man devoted to Al Qaeda, who had trained with the terrorist network, versed himself in poisons and chemical weapons, talked frequently with a terrorist financier, and kept Bin Laden speeches and lists of jihad websites on his computer.
"He met personally with Osama bin Laden and other known Al Qaeda members," Rapp concluded, "and volunteered for a martyr mission or to do anything else that Al Qaeda requested."