WASHINGTON – Nabil al-Marabh (search) was No. 27 on the FBI's list of terror suspects after Sept. 11. He trained in Afghanistan'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.
The Bush administration set him free — to Syria — 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 United States," an FBI agent wrote in a December 2002 report obtained by The Associated Press. 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 Y. Ashwas that was personally conducted by the U.S. attorney in Chicago, signifying its importance. 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 (search) said in court. The Justice Department 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 in the field who believed al-Marabh was tied to terrorism.
"The court finds applicant does present a danger to national security," U.S. Immigration Judge Robert D. Newberry ruled, concluding 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 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.
Internal FBI and Justice Department documents reviewed by AP show prosecutors and FBI agents in several cities gathered evidence that linked al-Marabh to:
—Raed Hijazi, the Boston cab driver convicted in Jordan for 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 United States, and al-Marabh sent money to Hijazi.
—The Detroit apartment where four men were arrested in what became the administration's first major terror prosecution after Sept. 11. Al-Marabh's name was still on the rental unit when agents raided it. The men were found with false IDs and documents describing alleged terror plots.
—Several large deposits, withdrawals and overseas wire transfers in 1998 and 2000 that were flagged as suspicious by a Boston bank. The Customs Service first identified al-Marabh in 2001 for possible terrorist ties to Hijazi.
FBI documents said Al-Marabh denied being affiliated with Al Qaeda. But he acknowledged receiving "security" training in rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in Afghan mujahedeen camps, sending money to his friend Hijazi, using a fake address to get a truck driving license and buying a phony passport for $4,000 in Canada to sneak into the United States shortly before Sept. 11.
Al-Marabh's attorney, Mark Kriger, said Wednesday he had never seen the Jordanian informant report and still doesn't believe his client had anything to do with terrorism. He said his client broke ties with Hijazi years ago after a falling out.
Kriger said he found it unbelievable "that the government, if it believed Ashwas, would have deported Mr. al-Marabh rather than indict him."
The Justice Department's criminal division chief, Chris Wray, expressed concern to Congress last month that some suspects were being deported to freedom. "It may be more difficult than people would expect" to make a case against a suspect, even when he or she trained at terror camps, he said.
"We may be able to deport the person under the immigration laws," Wray added. "And while that should give us some comfort, the fact is, if we go that route, the person is removed to another country and turned loose there, and we have no ability to make sure that they're not engaged in further terrorist activity."
At one point in late 2002, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago drafted an indictment against al-Marabh on multiple counts of making false statements in his interviews with FBI agents. Justice headquarters declined prosecution. Fitzgerald declined through a spokesman to discuss the reasons.
Fitzgerald then tracked down Ashwas, the Jordanian who because of minor immigration problems had spent time with al-Marabh in a federal detention cell in 2002. Fitzgerald had the man flown to Chicago and oversaw his debriefing along with FBI agents from Chicago and Detroit, documents show.
Ashwas alleged that during one of his encounters he helped persuade the prison psychiatrist to prescribe al-Marabh an anti-anxiety drug called Claripan and that al-Marabh began talking more freely, the FBI reported.
The FBI summarized Ashwas' allegations:
— Al-Marabh said he aided Hijazi's flight from authorities and sent him money, plotted a martyrdom attack in the United States and took instructions from a mystery figure in Chicago known only as "al Mosul," which means "boss" in Arabic.
— Al Mosul asked al-Marabh to attend a driving school in Detroit with Arabic instructors so he could get a commercial truck driver's license, and arranged for al-Marabh to live in the Detroit apartment later raided by the FBI as a terror cell.
— Al-Marabh said he and Hijazi planned to steal a fuel truck from a rest stop in New York and New Jersey and detonate it in the heavily traveled Lincoln or Holland tunnels, but the plan was foiled when Hijazi was arrested.
— Al-Marabh acknowledged he had distributed money — as much as $200,000 a month — to the various training camps in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.
The FBI and prosecutors confirmed some aspects of Ashwas' account, including that al-Marabh had been at the Detroit apartment, had trained at at least one Afghan camp and had gotten the truck driver's license.
Fitzgerald wasn't alone in his efforts to try to bring a case against al-Marabh
Prosecutors and FBI agents in other states sought to get enough evidence to prosecute him.
In Detroit, prosecutors developed evidence but weren't allowed to bring a case connecting al-Marabh to the terror cell there.
One of those prosecutors, longtime career Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino, recently sued Ashcroft, alleging the Justice Department improperly interfered with prosecuting terrorists. Justice says Convertino is under investigation for possibly withholding a piece of evidence from defense lawyers in the Detroit terror case.
When al-Marabh's name surfaced in the Detroit trial in March 2003, an FBI agent said al-Marabh remained under investigation for terrorism but hadn't been charged.
"Mr. Al-Marabh was listed No. 27 on the FBI Watch List," agent Michael Thomas testified. "He was a known associate, a former roommate of Mr. Raed Hijazi."
Less than 10 months after Thomas' testimony, al-Marabh was freed from custody and put on a plane to Syria.