PEORIA, Ill. – Ali al-Marri followed his older brother to central Illinois in the mid-1980s to pursue a business education unavailable in his native Qatar, becoming a Bulls fan and honing his pool-playing skills. He returned for further study more than 10 years later, bringing along his wife and five children.
But Al-Marri's third trip to the area comes under far different circumstances — facing trial on federal charges alleging he supported Al Qaeda terrorists. His first court appearance is Monday.
Al-Marri, 43, was arrested in late 2001 while studying at Bradley University in Peoria after federal authorities alleged he was an Al Qaeda sleeper agent tied to organizers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He was a legal U.S. resident but became the only "enemy combatant" in custody on American soil.
He was held without charges for more than five years at a Navy brig in South Carolina.
Then, last month, a federal grand jury in Illinois indicted al-Marri on charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terror.
The scant Feb. 26 indictment offers no details on the long-awaited charges and federal officials are not discussing al-Marri's case.
But his family, who live in Saudi Arabia, insist he is innocent and deserves a chance to prove it.
"I want Ali to go to court and get his fair case," older brother Naji al-Marri told The Associated Press. "If he is innocent, free him. If he's not innocent, then that's the law."
Ali Al-Marri's arrest in December 2001 shocked this Midwest city on the Illinois River, home of heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc., considered so representative of a cross-section of America that it is used as a test market and was memorialized in the Vaudevillian adage "Will it play in Peoria?"
"I remember how surprised I was that he lived in the community," said Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, a lifelong resident. "Someone potentially involved in the terrorist plot was here?"
"It's what America is all about: Peoria, Illinois," said former Mayor Jim Maloof, 89. "For the most part, it's bred in traditional values, appreciation for families and good education."
The same ideals, family say, drew al-Marri to the region.
He was one of 12 children in a close-knit family that valued education, said Naji al-Marri, 47, who came to Bradley in the early 1980s. He described his brother as a good student with a bright outlook.
"Nobody laughs as much as Ali," Naji al-Marri said. "He liked life a lot."
Ali al-Marri graduated in 1991 with a bachelor's in business management administration, then went to work for a bank in Qatar. His family arranged his marriage and the couple had five children.
But al-Marri wanted to continue his education at Bradley, Naji al-Marri said. He obtained a student visa and returned to the U.S. on Sept. 10, 2001.
Ali Al-Marri rented a house, enrolled in computer science classes, and regularly attended Friday services at the Islamic Center of Peoria, where members recall his petite stature and shoulder-length hair.
"He looked like a typical family man who was looking after his kids and trying to better himself by trying to go to school," said Bradley engineering professor Souhail Elhouar.
Elhouar said he didn't know al-Marri well, but was surprised by the arrest that sent a ripple through Peoria's close-knit Muslim community of about 3,000 to 4,500.
"In the beginning, it was chaos," said Abedellatif Mohamed, a former mosque president. he FBI questioned several mosque members about al-Marri.
Others also were taken aback by the allegations.
"It bothered me that it was that close," said Diane Craps, who cuts hair at Joe's Barbershop in West Peoria. "But I guess it could happen anywhere."
Al-Marri's wife did not speak English, had little money and could not drive. "We took turns taking care of his family," Mohamed said.
Al-Marri was moved to New York and indicted on charges of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI, not terror charges. Federal authorities alleged he ran a scam to help fund Al Qaeda.
Around the same time, al-Marri's younger brother Jaralla al-Marri was detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan on suspicion of links to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He was held at Guantanamo Bay without charges for more than six years before being released.
The fraud charges against Ali al-Marri were dropped in June 2003, when President George W. Bush declared him an enemy combatant and ordered him transferred to military custody.
For more than a year, al-Marri was allowed contact with no one, including attorneys. His wife and children left central Illinois. "She's very, very angry," Naji al-Marri said of his sister-in-law. "They took her husband."
In court documents, the government contended Ali al-Marri met with Osama bin Laden in the summer of 2001 and was sent to the U.S. to help Al Qaeda operatives carry out attacks following Sept. 11, 2001.
Al-Marri spent much of the past five years in isolation at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina. He was interrogated and faced conditions his attorneys called torture.
He initially was not allowed to wear socks or shoes on concrete floors, had no bedding and no human contact and experienced mental health issues, according to court documents. Attorneys said his conditions later improved.
"I really thought Ali was not alive," Naji al-Marri said. "Even when I talked to him, I was not convinced until I asked him some question that only he would know."
Naji al-Marri said he only asks about his brother's well-being, not any alleged crimes. In three telephone conversations, including one in February, Ali al-Marri seemed in good spirits, his brother said.
"He (once) asked me 'Did the Cubs come to the World Series?"' Naji al-Marri said. "I told him 'No, as usual."'
Attorney Andy Savage said Ali al-Marri is looking forward to trial.
"He believes that this will result in his repatriation to his homeland and return to his family," Savage said.
Ali al-Marri did not learn of his father's death until a year after it happened. Security stalled family letters for months. His wife and children have only recently seen a picture.
"He has missed bringing his kids up," Naji al-Marri said, noting his brother's son who was eight when he went to jail is now a teenager. "Nothing will pay for that."