Accused Al Qaeda operative in court after 5 years in brig
Qatar native also faces federal civil charges in Illinois
CHARLESTON, S.C. - Alleged Al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali al-Marri, smiling and seemingly relaxed, appeared in federal court yesterday to face terror charges, his first time outside a nearby military brig in more than five years.
Al-Marri, who had been held without charge as an enemy combatant, now faces civilian federal charges of providing material support to terror and conspiracy in Illinois.
President Obama ordered al-Marri to be surrendered to civil authorities last month after he was indicted in federal court in Peoria, Ill. Around the same time, the administration asked the Supreme Court to dismiss a legal challenge by al-Marri to his military detention, which the court last week agreed to do.
The 43-year-old Qatar native made an initial appearance before US Magistrate Judge Robert Carr, telling him he understood the charges and his rights. He is expected to enter a formal plea when returned to Illinois.
But al-Marri will appear again before Carr on March 18 as his attorney, Andy Savage, argues that he should be released on bond.
Until his transfer or release on bond, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to keep al-Marri in a civilian cell at the Navy brig where he has been held since 2003, allowing him more access to his attorneys than he had during his years of detention as an enemy combatant.
Handcuffed and wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt, gray sweatpants, a long black beard flecked with gray, and a close-fitting cap, al-Marri entered the courtroom for the 10-minute hearing and shared a quiet laugh with Savage.
He smiled and glanced around the courtroom as his attorney pointed out courtroom officials.
Al-Marri replied "Yes, sir" when asked whether he understood the charges and his rights and whether Savage was his attorney.
Six US marshals stood by the back door of the courtroom during the hearing while four others stood directly behind the defense table.
Savage told reporters later his client was glad to get out of the brig, if only for a short time.
"He was very pleased to be outside and very pleased to be in a court environment but it was dark outside and he was disappointed he didn't get to see much of Charleston," Savage said.
He said his client is doing well, considering his long detention in what the lawyer called isolation.
"You saw his characteristics - he's calm, he's collected, smiling, engaged, and interested in what's going on," Savage said.
"This is a fella whose picture just went to his family last month. This is a fella who has only had three phone calls with his family, three of those being in the last year," he added.
Savage said he would argue next week that al-Marri should be released on bond, but would not say whom he will call to testify. "We have what I feel is a pretty good argument. If we didn't have a chance at all, we wouldn't do it," he said.
Al-Marri was studying at Bradley University in Peoria when he was arrested in late 2001 as part of the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. He was initially indicted on fraud charges, which were dropped in 2003 when President Bush declared him an enemy combatant.
The government has said al-Marri met with Osama bin Laden and volunteered for a suicide mission or whatever help Al Qaeda wanted. He arrived in the United States the day before terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Qaeda leaders wanted al-Marri, a computer specialist, to wreak havoc on the US banking system and to serve as a liaison for other operatives, according to a court document filed by Jeffrey Rapp, a senior member of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The Supreme Court forced Obama to act in al-Marri's case when it decided in December to hear his challenge to being held as an enemy combatant. Several justices had indicated as early as 2006, in the detention case of US citizen and former Chicago gang member José Padilla, that they were troubled by the Bush policy of holding people without charges on US soil.