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Al Qaeda suspect declared 'enemy combatant'

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri

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U.S. Justice Department officials said Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, 37, was trained in the use of poisons. CNN's Kelli Arena reports (June 23)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Qatari man President Bush designated an "enemy combatant" Monday was an al Qaeda sleeper operative tasked with helping other militants get in position for future attacks, Justice Department officials said.

The officials said an al Qaeda detainee provided that information on Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, 37.

Al-Marri has been in U.S. custody since December 2001 and was under an indictment charging him with making false statements to the FBI and credit card fraud.

The detainee also said al-Marri was trained in the use of poisons but was not ordered to carry out a biological or chemical attack in the United States, the officials said.

It was the second time since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that Bush has transferred a defendant from the criminal justice system to more restrictive military custody, where he is afforded fewer rights.

Other detainees told interrogators al-Marri met with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at the al-Farooq paramilitary camp in Afghanistan and that al-Marri offered to become a martyr for the cause, according to the officials.

Al-Marri arrived in the United States on a student visa the day before the September 11 attacks. The FBI interviewed al-Marri that fall, when he was living in Illinois, following tips that he had made several calls to a terrorist paymaster in the United Arab Emirates. Al-Marri denied making the calls.

Jan Paul Miller, U.S. attorney for the central district of Illinois, said prosecutors were recently made aware of the new evidence in the case, which came from at least two detainees.

Although prosecutors were consulted by the Justice Department, "we were not sure this would happen until the president signed it," Miller said in a telephone interview with CNN.

Sources told CNN al-Marri was not cooperating with authorities and that the government believed it may have a better chance of obtaining information from him if he is placed under military custody.

"An individual with that kind of situation is an individual who might know a lot about what could happen, might know the names of individuals, information being so key to intelligence and prevention," said Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"Prevention being our No. 1 objective, we decided we would be best served with him detained as an enemy combatant."

The presidential order requires Ashcroft to surrender al-Marri to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He will be moved to the brig at the Navy base in Charleston, South Carolina, officials said.

Charges dropped

"Mr. al-Marri engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and war-like acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism," said the one-page order bearing the president's signature -- a photocopy of which was obtained by CNN.

"Mr. al-Marri represents a continuing, present and grave danger to the national security of the United States," Bush's order said.

The order added that his detention was "necessary to prevent him from aiding al Qaeda in its efforts to attack the United States or its armed forces, other government personnel, or citizens."

At the government's request, the existing criminal charges against al-Marri, who was awaiting trial in Illinois, were dismissed with prejudice, meaning they cannot be filed again.

Al-Marri was indicted earlier this year on seven counts charging him with making false statements to FBI investigators and to financial institutions, and with identity and credit-card fraud.

Although al-Marri was not charged with terrorism, the indictment said he lied about his contacts with a terrorist paymaster in the United Arab Emirates, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi.

Al-Hawsawi, who has been in U.S. custody since his February capture in Pakistan, is suspected of helping finance the September 11 terrorist attacks by transferring tens of thousand of dollars to the 19 hijackers before the attacks.

Attorney questions motives

"I am skeptical that their decision is a response to new information, as opposed to legal developments in the case," said defense attorney Mark Berman, who represented al-Marri in New York before the case was transferred to Illinois.

Just last week, Berman filed pretrial motions to suppress evidence seized at al-Marri's West Peoria, Illinois, apartment.

Berman argued the FBI search, the day before al-Marri's arrest, occurred without a warrant. The attorney also said al-Marri's initial interrogation was conducted without properly advising him of his rights.

U.S. District Judge Michel Mihm had planned a July 2 hearing on the suppression motion, and a July 22 trial date had been set.

"Rather than providing due process, the government has chosen a forum in which they can deny the defendant his constitutional rights, not the least of which is right to counsel," Berman said.

Prosecutors in open court have called al-Marri "an associate of al-Qaeda" who sought to provide the group "material support."

The al-Marri indictment said he told FBI agents he had never called al-Hawsawi's phone number when in fact he had dialed the number using a calling card on several occasions between September and November 2001.

The same number was a point of contact for lead September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and alleged attack coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh, investigators said.

The indictment accused al-Marri of possessing more than 15 unauthorized credit cards and counterfeit credit numbers, which investigators said they found in his laptop computer and on a piece of paper in his computer carrying case.

Al-Marri -- who has a wife and five children in Saudi Arabia -- was also charged with using fake identification and a false Social Security number to open three bank accounts in Illinois so he could deposit and withdraw money under an assumed name.

FBI agents said in court documents that al-Marri's computer contained audio lectures by bin Laden about jihad and martyrdom, an Arabic prayer asking God to protect bin Laden, photos of the September 11 attacks, and bookmarked Web sites about the ousted Taliban regime of Afghanistan.

The agents said al-Marri surfed Web sites about dangerous chemicals and marked pages in an almanac with information about U.S. dams, railroads, waterways and railroads, according to court documents.

A 1991 graduate of Bradley University, al-Marri had returned to the Peoria school to pursue computer studies.

He joins enemy combatant Jose Padilla as the second known criminal defendant removed from the criminal justice system.

Padilla, who is being held at the Navy brig in Charleston, is a U.S. citizen suspected of plotting to explode a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material, inside the United States.

A Louisiana native, Yaser Esam Hamdi, also has been designated an enemy combatant, but unlike Padilla and Al-Marri, he was never charged in the civilian criminal justice system.

The Louisiana-born Hamdi was captured as a member of the Taliban army and as such was considered as an enemy combatant. Authorities said Hamdi had an AK-47 in his possession when he was captured.

Hamdi initially was sent to a makeshift prison at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was later transferred to a Navy brig in Norfolk, Virginia, after he revealed he was a U.S. citizen.

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