PEORIA — With the country still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, a shocked Peoria suddenly found itself pinpointed in a nationwide sweep for possible terrorists.
Following a routine traffic stop by an eagle-eyed Peoria patrol officer, the FBI began taking a long, hard look at Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari national and Bradley University grad student. He seemed an unlikely criminal mastermind: Known for an easy smile during his undergrad days, he was living in a modest West Peoria apartment with his wife and five kids.
But before year’s end, al-Marri would be locked up at the Peoria County Jail, about to embark on an eight-year legal saga that played to some of the nation’s worst fears but also challenged some of the most basic constitutional standards of the United States. Federal accusations, including from the president, painted an alarming picture of a sleeper agent quietly plotting mass destruction.
In the end, al-Marri pleaded guilty to assisting al-Qaeda, though the government’s gravest terror accusations never amounted to criminal counts. After serving five years in prison, he was deported to his native land, where today he renounces his guilty plea as a product of torture by the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, 20 years after 9/11, one key question remains unclear: What was Ali al-Marri really doing in Peoria?
Smiles filled his first time at Bradley
Relatives said al-Marri was one of a dozen siblings raised in a close-knit family that valued education. Thus, at age 22, he decided to follow in a brother’s footsteps and attend a college half a world away, Bradley University.
Arriving in Peoria in 1987, the undergrad became a fan of the Chicago Bulls and barroom pool, family and friends later would say. He was known to enjoy a party, often getting raucous.
He graduated in 1991 with a business degree. He returned to Qatar, working in computer support for a bank.
From all indications, Peoria would not see him again for a decade. In 2001, he obtained a student visa and headed back to Bradley to enroll in graduate school. He said he intended to pursue a master’s degree in computer science, on his company’s dime. To friends, he later would describe his return to school as a last-minute decision.
As such, he did not arrive in Peoria until Sept. 10, after the start of the fall semester. However, according to Bradley officials, foreign students often arrive late due to travel and paperwork challenges.
His tardiness left him scrambling for a place to stay. Furthermore, he hadn’t come alone, but with his wife and five children. At first, they took a room at an East Peoria motel. Later, a friend helped him find a two-bedroom apartment in West Peoria for $450 a month. In part, he liked the place for its big parking lot where the kids could play. However, the landlord and other residents said they rarely saw the wife or children outside the apartment.
At Bradley, he was known to play pickup soccer games with faculty and students. More often, though, he spent non-classroom time at home, especially because his wife and children could not speak English, thus limiting their interaction with the outside world. For prayer and socializing, his family sometimes would attend the Peoria Islamic Center.
Otherwise, the semester did not move along entirely smoothly for al-Marri. According to court records, he realized that a graduate degree would take longer than expected; so, he decided to pursue a second bachelor’s degree instead. However, he often missed classes, and by the end of the term he had a failing grade-point average.
Meanwhile, he expressed a desire to leave Peoria for Carbondale. He felt Southern Illinois University had more Saudi students, which would make his wife — a native of Saudi Arabia — more comfortable.
Indeed, he’d soon be out of Peoria — but not in any way he’d expected.
Traffic stop alerts FBI
On Sept. 13, al-Marri was pulled over in Peoria for not having his 5-year-old restrained in the back seat. When the patrol officer ran al-Marri’s information, he found al-Marri was wanted on a 10-year-old Peoria County arrest warrant for failing to appear in court on a 1991 DUI charge.
Before al-Marri was taken to jail, the officer drove him and his son to their East Peoria motel, so the boy could be left with al-Marri’s wife. As they stepped into the motel room, al-Marri offered to post bail with bills pulled from a briefcase stuffed with cash. At that, the officer explained the bond procedure. Then, al-Marri was taken for processing at the jail.
Later that night, the officer kept thinking about the cash-filled briefcase. Feeling ill at ease, he called the department’s FBI liaison and explained what he’d seen.
Meanwhile, after the trip to jail, al-Marri went on with life as usual, including the family’s move to West Peoria. In November, he appeared in Peoria County Court on the DUI count, for which he was put on one year of court supervision and fined $550. He later paid the fine in full Dec. 4.
But on Dec. 15 at the family’s apartment, he was arrested by the FBI on a material-witness warrant issued out of the federal court in Manhattan. He was locked up at the Peoria County Jail. His arrival, which came with almost no background information, seemed unusual to county officers, recalls Mike McCoy, then the chief deputy for the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office.
“It was daunting, because we didn’t know what was going on,” said McCoy, later the county sheriff and now the police chief in Washington.
Marshals gave explicit instructions regarding al-Marri: no calls, no visitors — nothing but meals. Rare at the jail, isolation demands intense police attention.
“Solitary confinement is a big deal,” McCoy said. “We worry about mental health. We worry about self-harm.”
As days wore on, McCoy gleaned snippets of information about the isolated inmate: Al-Marri was wanted for questioning in the nationwide terrorism investigation. That notion — a terrorist quietly afoot locally — shocked even law enforcement. Furthermore, as McCoy and deputies wondered at the time, what if al-Marri had accomplices in town?
“Common sense told us he might not be doing this alone in Peoria,” McCoy said.
During rare times out of his cell, al-Marri seemed to intently watch jail procedures, such as the locking of cells. McCoy grew concerned al-Marri was looking for a way to escape. But three weeks passed uneventfully before marshals had al-Marri on the move again, this time out of Peoria.
“I was pretty happy when he got moved,” McCoy said. “Number one, you don’t want him doing anything. Number two, you don’t want anything happening to him.”
From Peoria, al-Marri was about to begin a lengthy, twisting legal saga that would rise to the attention of the president of the United States of America.
Long, twisting legal saga begins
The first week of 2002, al-Marri was taken to an undisclosed jail in New York City. There, at the end of the month, a criminal complaint was filed in federal court portraying al-Marri as a computer hacker who had committed widespread credit card fraud. FBI agents had searched his apartment, including his laptop, finding 1,000 credit card numbers.
The lone charge against him, possession of 15 or more unauthorized access devices or credit cards, carried a possible prison term of 15 years. But the count included no mention of terrorism, and federal officials refused to discuss the case or al-Marri, who remained held without bail.
That March, a federal affidavit — the basis in obtaining the search warrant for al-Marri’s apartment — was unsealed in Peoria, linking al-Marri to al-Qaeda. Calling cards — used at al-Marri’s apartment, along with a Chicago hotel room rented in his name — also had been used to call the United Arab Emirates, along with Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers who flew a plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, accused of funding the hijackers.
Then, in December, new charges alleged al-Marri not only lied to authorities but also had used a stolen Social Security number to open accounts at a Macomb bank. The next month, court documents claimed his laptop had links to websites with information about U.S. dams and railroads, along with websites explaining how to buy hazardous chemicals described as "immediately dangerous to life or health." The laptop also allegedly carried speeches by Osama bin Laden, plus photos of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Through it all, defense attorneys — all working pro bono — not only denied all charges, but also denounced any implications tying al-Marri to terrorism, claiming the government's evidence proved no such connection.
Meanwhile, al-Marri’s wife had moved with the kids to Washington, D.C., to be near the Saudi Embassy. Then, in February 2003, Saudi Arabia issued them passports out of "humanitarian and medical" concerns, according to the Saudi Embassy. She and the children flew to her native country for good. The relocation irritated the U.S. government, which had issued her a subpoena (then since-expired) to testify before a federal grand jury.
Briefly, al-Marri enjoyed a legal upswing. In May 2003, al-Marri’s legal team got the case moved from New York to Peoria, as the alleged crimes occurred in central Illinois. For any case with even a smidge of connection to 9/11, anyplace had to be less hostile than New York City.
As al-Marri arrived in Peoria, defense attorney Mark Berman of New Jersey told news reporters, "He spent a great deal of time here and he has a fondness for the area. He feels he can get a fair trial here."
As time wore on, U.S. District Courthouse employees told the Journal Star that he seemed pleasant and personable. But that portrayal took a hit in June, when Newsweek magazine quoted federal law-enforcement sources calling him "the perfect sleeper agent" as the point man for all post-Sept. 11 al-Qaeda operatives.
Still, al-Marri's legal problems were about to get even worse.
President Bush: Al-Marri is enemy combatant
Later that month, just before a key evidence-suppression hearing in Peoria, President George W. Bush signed an executive order that named al-Marri an “enemy combatant." The order deemed al-Marri an "al-Qaeda sleeper agent" who had pledged his loyalty to bin Laden at a terrorist training camp. The order further described al-Marri as a "continuing, present and grave danger to the national security of the United States."
The designation removed al-Marri from the civilian judicial system and put him under the control of the military, stripping him of constitutional rights, including the right to an attorney.
Al-Marri became only the third enemy combatant in America, joining the notorious likes of Yaser Esam Hamdi, a Louisiana-born American captured for fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Jose Padilla, a Brooklyn native accused of plotting to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States.
Al-Marri was transferred to the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C. As he languished without contact with the outside world, his attorneys scrambled for relief.
One of his attorneys, Jonathan Hafetz, now a professor at Seton Hall Law School, recalls, “His military detention as an enemy combatant represented the most far-reaching use of the executive power in the war on terror. ... This was a flagrant attack on the Constitution. Any person could be plucked out of civilian court.”
Indeed, in late 2003, two federal appeals courts ruled that the U.S. military cannot indefinitely hold prisoners without access to lawyers or the civilian court system. As one judge wrote, "Even in times of national emergency — indeed, particularly in such times — it is the obligation of the judicial branch to ensure the preservation of our constitutional values and to prevent the executive branch from running roughshod over the rights of citizens and aliens alike."
Furthermore, six months later, the U.S. Supreme Court said enemy combatants can use civilian courts to challenge the legality of why they are being detained. Immediately, al-Marri's attorneys asked a judge to let them see their client, prompting federal prosecutors to relent. For the first time in a year, al-Marri could consult with his attorneys.
Based on their brig observations, in August 2005 they would file a lawsuit claiming mental and physical maltreatment in his 9-by-6-foot cell. Prohibited from talking to anyone but his lawyers and the International Red Cross, he had no access to radio, TV or newspapers. He received no medical care, and guards often would remove his mattress, leaving him to sleep on cold concrete. He often was denied toilet paper and running water.
"Brig staff sometimes eliminate the water supply in plaintiff's cell, which prevents him from flushing the toilet in the cell which has required him to defecate on his food tray so that his feces would not have to remain in the same cell where he lives and prays,” the suit claimed.
Another defense attorney, Andy Savage of South Carolina, still shudders at the brig’s effect on al-Marri.
“He was on the edge of becoming psychotic,” Savage said. “He damn near lost his mind.”
More allegations pile up
By the end of 2005, al-Marri’s conditions improved. Though still in isolation, he received a permanent mattress, along with reading material. By that time, he had become America’s only enemy combatant. Hamdi had been released as no longer a threat, while Padilla's case had been moved to civilian court.
But more allegations — if not evidence — piled up.
In April 2006, declassified documents from the dropped federal charges claimed al-Qaeda had tasked al-Marri with exploring the possibility of hacking into the main computers of U.S. banks to "wipe out balances and otherwise wreak havoc with banking records in order to damage the U.S. economy."
And in early 2007, John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general during 9/11 and the subsequent investigation, released a book called "Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice.” Ashcroft portrayed al-Marri as the intended al-Qaeda spearhead for a second wave of strikes in America, including the flying of an airliner into the tallest skyscraper on the West Coast, the 73-story U.S. Bank Building in downtown Los Angeles.
"How ironic that a man with direct ties to al-Qaeda would set up operations in Peoria, in the heart of our nation,” Ashcroft wrote.
At the time, the Los Angeles Times talked to multiple law-enforcement sources who expressed skepticism about Ashcroft's claims regarding al-Marri as a threat. Indeed, as al-Marri’s attorneys told the Journal Star, the federal government had provided no evidence of Ashcroft’s claims.
Ashcroft — upon the release of the book, and in advance of this story — did not respond to Journal Star requests for an interview.
However, five months later, al-Marri caught a first break. The conservative 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled the government cannot indefinitely detain someone — not even an enemy combatant — without charging him or allowing him to confront his accusers. Though not a U.S. citizen, al-Marri was in the country legally and therefore had a constitutional right to due process, the court determined. The decision meant al-Marri had to either be charged in civilian court, declared a material witness, deported or released.
As the federal government continued the fight to detain al-Marri, his attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. But before justices could rule, the saga underwent another twist, this time from the new Obama administration's Justice Department. While asking the high court to dismiss the petition, the department simultaneously got new indictments against al-Marri in federal court in Peoria, alleging he had conspired to help al-Qaeda.
His legal team hoped the high court would still rule on the issue, to set precedent for any future enemy-combatant cases. But justices let the matter drop.
Denied bond, al-Marri was moved from the South Carolina brig to the federal prison in Pekin. After six years of legal wrangling, and following tight security at pretrial hearings at Peoria’s federal courthouse, observers prepared to witness a heavyweight court showdown.
But it never happened.
Al-Marri pleads guilty in Peoria
In April 2009, al-Marri calmly walked into the federal courtroom, beaming before about five dozen spectators, some of them FBI agents on the case since 2001. At ease among his attorneys at the defense table, al-Marri entered a plea — uttering a simple and emotionless "guilty" — to one count of conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped a second such count, meaning he faced up to 15 years in prison, rather than 30.
As part of the plea, al-Marri admitted to training in al-Qaeda camps between 1998 and 2001, learning to handle weapons and communicate with code by email and phone. He also admitted having regular contact with high-level terrorist operatives involved in 9/11.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement: "Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we, as a nation, still face."
But defense attorney Savage said the plea was made to spare the 43-year-old al-Marri a 30-year sentence.
"We thought (the plea) was the right approach to take, based on the evidence the government allowed us to review over the last several weeks," Savage told reporters.
For sentencing, in October 2009, prosecutors pushed for the full 15 years, while defense attorneys filed papers concluding, "It's time for him to go home." In court in Peoria, an emotional al-Marri said he wished no harm on anyone.
"My religious beliefs, refined through years of thoughtful prayers and study during my incarceration, I realize prohibit me from engaging in violence against any man," he said through a heavy accent. "I forcefully reject any sort of violence for religion, political or other reasons."
U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm met the two sides almost in the middle, sentencing al-Marri to 100 months in prison. The judge said al-Marri had been no mere patsy but rather a key operative.
"I don't believe you were a lackey," Mihm told al-Marri. "That would be an insult to your intelligence and to the commitment you made when you came here as a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda."
But his comments went beyond the courtroom. The judge also lashed out at Defense Intelligence Agency interrogators who had passed along veiled and unveiled threats against al-Marri's family in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, if he were to fail to cooperate.
“That was totally unacceptable," Mihm said. "That's not who we are."
Al-Marri was moved from Pekin to the federal lockup in Marion. Yet to some observers, the conclusion seemed incomplete: What had been al-Marri's true mission?
He had been accused of hacking into computer systems to damage the U.S. economy, running a credit-card scam to finance al-Qaeda and planning a second wave of terrorist attacks. But none of that came into play in the ultimate federal charges. Furthermore, a 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA "enhanced interrogation" stated that the agency had no concrete proof linking al-Marri to a specific al-Qaeda plot.
Today, defense attorney Hafetz underscores, “The government never proved the most severe allegations against him."
He now blames guilty plea on torture
In 2015, with credit for some of the time spent locked up before his guilty plea, al-Marri was released from a maximum-security prison in Colorado. He was immediately deported to his native Qatar, where his family soon told reporters, "He is in high spirits."
He still is, according to defense attorney Savage, who continues to communicate and visit with al-Marri.
Al-Marri, who works in Qatar in commercial real estate, enjoys his family, which now includes grandchildren, Savage said. All in all, he said, al-Marri’s life these days seems low-profile and normal.
“I don’t see any indications of radicalism,” Savage said.
Al-Marri did not respond to a Journal Star request for comment left with Savage. But al-Marri now denies any training or connection with al-Qaeda. He said he pleaded guilty only as a result of torture in the brig.
Cage, a London-based human-rights organization that assists Muslims detained in the war on terror, has released videos and reports detailing al-Marri’s claims of torture. Furthermore, in 2018, al-Marri allowed his only known interview, with CNN. He said torture at the brig left him fearful for his family and his life.
“Threatening my life is torture, according to your law,” he told CNN.
The FBI denied torturing al-Marri. The U.S. Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, did not return a Journal Star request for comment for this story. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of Illinois, which includes Peoria, also declined to comment for this story.
Savage admits al-Marri’s culpability regarding the financial-fraud charges — “I’m not saying Ali was an innocent person, as pure as the driven snow,” he said — but he remains dumbfounded over the terrorism allegations.
“I never saw one iota of evidence,” Savage said. “... It was all so preposterous, so unbelievable.”
As far as the case’s legacy, Hafetz, who also maintains contact with al-Marri, wishes the U.S. Supreme Court had tied up a huge loose end. He laments the high court’s decision to drop the defense petition challenging al-Marri’s indefinite detainment, thus offering no precedent for any future enemy combatant.
“It’s a legal black hole in the United States,” he said.
Phil Luciano is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.