WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors are preparing to charge Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri with providing material support to al-Qaida terrorists in a groundbreaking move that would put the alleged sleeper agent under the jurisdiction of the U.S. court system, according to sources familiar with the issue.
Indicting al-Marri in a federal court marks a significant change from the Bush administration, which had argued that al-Marri should be tried in a military tribunal proceeding and that he could not use American courts to contest his legal status.
Al-Marri is the last remaining “enemy combatant” in the United States, where he has spent five and a half years in a military brig in South Carolina.
The criminal charges, which sources said also could include conspiracy, will be among the most early and critical signals about the Obama administration’s approach to handling alleged terrorism suspects.
In one of his first steps since taking office last month, President Barack Obama explicitly directed government lawyers to review the status of al-Marri’s case. He also ordered within one year the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where about 245 terrorism suspects have been housed for years.
The decision to move al-Marri into the U.S. courts, where he will be able to assert a host of rights to challenge any evidence against him, comes after lengthy debate at the highest levels of government.
Authorities arrested al-Marri in Peoria, Ill., in December 2001, just months after al-Qaida engineered strikes on New York and Washington. He came to the United States with his wife and five children to obtain a master’s degree at Bradley University.
Since 2003, he has been housed in a South Carolina brig where at points he was subjected to painful stress positions, extreme sensory deprivation, and violent threats while he was denied access to lawyers, according to court filings by his legal team.