PEORIA, Ill. -- A man locked up for seven years since being accused of plotting terrorist attacks in the U.S. as an al-Qaida sleeper agent pleaded not guilty to federal charges Monday and was told his fate may be decided by the end of the year.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm set a May 26 for the start Ali al-Marri's trial on charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism, but acknowledged it would be moved and said he would realistically like to begin by November or December.
The case will be complex -- much of the evidence involves national security issues and attorneys say they have had to apply for federal clearances.
Al-Marri, 43, was arrested in late 2001 while studying at Bradley University in Peoria after federal authorities alleged he was tied to organizers of the Sept. 11 attacks. A legal U.S. resident, the native of Qatar was declared an "enemy combatant" by the Bush administration and held without charges for more than five years at a Navy brig in South Carolina.
The designation was dropped when a federal grand jury in Illinois indicted al-Marri on charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terror, which each carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Al-Marri spent most of Monday's half-hour court appearance -- the first here since his indictment -- seated at a table between two attorneys, occasionally rubbing his chest-length salt-and-pepper beard. Wearing a white short-sleeved pullover, tan pants and an embroidered white cap over shoulder-length hair, he stood only briefly to answer "yes" or "no" to a handful of procedural questions from Mihm.
One of the attorneys, Lee Smith of Peoria, entered the not guilty plea. Another said after the hearing that al-Marri was glad to be back in Peoria, where he spent more than four years earning a degree from Bradley.
"He's not bitter at all," attorney Andrew Savage of Charleston, S.C., said outside the courthouse. "He harbors no ill will toward the people who have held him in custody. He harbors no ill will toward America."
The defense attorneys said their next task is digging through the prosecution evidence they received in court on a handful of DVDs and a copy of a hard drive taken from al-Marri's computer.
"I think we're going to be busy for the next several weeks, if not months," Savage said.
What might be part of that evidence isn't clear. Federal prosecutors have said little about their case, and the two-page Feb. 26 indictment lists the two charges against al-Marri and little else.
In previous court documents declassified during al-Marri's time in the naval brig, the government contended he had met with Osama bin Laden in the summer of 2001 and was sent to the U.S. to help al-Qaida operatives carry out attacks following Sept. 11.
Al-Marri faced fraud charges after his 2001 arrest, but those charges were dropped when he was declared an enemy combatant and transferred to military custody in June 2003.
Isolation at Navy brig
Al-Marri spent much of his time at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C. in isolation and faced interrogations and conditions his attorneys said amounted to torture. Attorneys said his conditions later improved.
President Obama, after the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed in December to consider al-Marri's challenge of his enemy combatant status, ordered that al-Marri be surrendered to civil authorities after he was indicted in Peoria.
He had been the last enemy combatant held on U.S. soil.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the government has held two U.S. citizens -- former Chicago gang member Jose Padilla and Louisiana native Yaser Hamdi -- and one legal resident, al-Marri, as enemy combatants in the same brig.
Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan, was released in 2004 after the government said he no longer posed a threat to the U.S. Padilla was arrested on allegations he was part of a plot to set off a radiological "dirty bomb" in the U.S. but eventually was indicted and convicted on unrelated criminal charges.
Al-Marri is now being held in isolation at a federal prison in Pekin, Ill., just outside Peoria, Savage said. At least some of his family members, who live in Saudi Arabia, would like to attend the trial.
"Whether the American government will allow them to get a visa is another matter," Savage said.
Mihm praised the defense and prosecution for their cooperation in the case thus far and encouraged them to keep the case moving.
"I'm putting everyone on notice now that I want to make every effort to try this case before the end of the year," he said.
The judge set April 14 as al-Marri's next hearing date and entered a May 26 trial date, but acknowledged the latter will be moved once it becomes clear how soon attorneys can be ready.