WASHINGTON - The tricky case of an accused al-Qaida sleeper agent will take a little longer as Obama administration officials decide what to do with him.
President Barack Obama ordered the Justice Department on Thursday to review the case of Qatar native Ali al-Marri, the only enemy combatant currently being held on U.S. soil.
The directive seeks a delay in al-Marri's case before the Supreme Court while the review is ongoing. The government says al-Marri is an al-Qaida sleeper agent who has met Osama bin Laden and spent time at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
A legal U.S. resident, al-Marri has been held in solitary confinement at a U.S. Navy brig in Hanahan since 2003. He was living in Peoria, Ill. when the FBI arrested him in December 2001 as a material witness to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Initially, he was charged with credit card fraud, but authorities later said he had strong links to al-Qaida terrorists, so President Bush declared him an enemy combatant and transferred him to the military brig.
Al-Marri's lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he had already agreed earlier this week to the government's request for a one-month delay, and doesn't want the case delayed so long that it is not heard before the Supreme Court finishes its work in the summer.
"We vigorously oppose any delay that would push this case past this term," Hafetz said. "The detention is clearly illegal and we believe the Supreme Court will strike it down on review."
Al-Marri's case before the high court hinges on whether the president has the authority to detain as enemy combatants people who are in the United States legally, a question that could apply to a U.S. citizen as well as a foreigner.
The Obama administration might not want to force the court to decide that issue, and could instead send al-Marri home or transfer him back into the U.S. court system.
In court documents, the government contends that al-Marri met with bin Laden in the summer of 2001 and "offered to be an al-Qaida martyr or to do anything else that al-Qaida requested."
A government summary of the case - declassified in 2006 - indicated al-Marri was closely tied with senior al-Qaida leadership, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Marri's brother was also seized by U.S. officials and sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
"Al-Qaida sent al-Marri to the United States to facilitate other al-Qaida operatives in carrying out post-Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks," the government papers charge.