Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 6 News List

US agencies split on terror suspect's release


Nabil al-Marabh was No. 27 on the FBI's list of terror suspects after Sept. 11. He trained in Afghan-istan's militant camps, sent money to a roommate convicted in a foiled plot to bomb a hotel, and boasted to an informant about plans to blow up a fuel truck inside a New York tunnel, FBI documents allege.

President George W. Bush's administration set him free, even though prosecutors had sought to bring criminal cases against him and judges openly expressed concerns about possible terrorist ties.

Al-Marabh served an eight-month jail sentence and was sent in January to his native Syria, which is regarded by the United States as a sponsor of terrorism. The quiet disposition of his case stands in stark contrast to the language FBI agents used to describe the man.

Al-Marabh "intended to martyr himself in an attack" against the US, an FBI agent wrote in a December 2002 report. A footnote in al-Marabh's deportation ruling last year added, "The FBI has been unable to rule out the possibility that al-Marabh has engaged in terrorist activity or will do so if he is not removed from the United States."

One FBI report summarized a high-level debriefing of a Jordanian informant named Ahmed Ashwas that was conducted by the US attorney in Chicago. The informant alleged al-Marabh told him of specific terrorist plans during their time in prison.

Even the judge who accepted al-Marabh's plea agreement on minor immigration charges in 2002 balked. "Something about this case just makes me feel uncomfortable," Judge Richard Arcara said in court. The Justice Department, however, assured the judge that al-Marabh did not have terrorist ties.

A second judge who ultimately ordered al-Marabh's deportation sided with FBI agents, federal prosecutors and Customs agents who said al-Marabh was tied to terrorism.

"The court finds applicant does present a danger to national security," Immigration Judge Robert Newberry ruled, concluding that al-Marabh was "credibly linked to elements of terrorism" and had a "propensity to lie."

Neither the courts nor al-Marabh's attorneys were given access to the most striking allegations provided by the Jordanian informant.

Asked to explain the decision to free al-Marabh, Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said the government has concerns about many people with suspected terror ties but cannot effectively try them in court without giving away intelligence sources and methods.

"If the government cannot prosecute terrorism charges, another option is to remove the individual from the United States via deportation. After careful review, this was determined to be the best option available under the law to protect our national security," he said.

But a Senate Judiciary Committee member scoffed at the explanation. "It's hard to believe that the best way to deal with the FBI's 27th-most-wanted terrorist is to send him back to a terrorist-sponsoring country," said Democrat Charles Schumer. He said the Justice Department could have used a military tribunal. "This action certainly raises a lot of questions and demands a lot of answers," Schumer said.

Internal FBI and Justice Department documents show that prosecutors and FBI agents in several cities gathered evidence that linked al-Marabh to Raed Hijazi, the Boston cab driver convicted in Jordan of plotting to blow up an American-frequented hotel in Amman during the millennium celebrations of 1999. Al-Marabh and Hijazi were roommates at the Afghan training camps and later in the US, and al-Marabh sent money to Hijazi.

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