Family and friends who packed a Virginia courtroom to support Ahmed Omar Abu Ali laughed out loud when prosecutors alleged that the former high school valedictorian had plotted to assassinate President Bush.
Abu Ali, 23, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Falls Church, was charged Tuesday with conspiring with al-Qaida to kill the president in a plan that prosecutors said was hatched while the man studied in Saudi Arabia in 2002 and 2003.
Those who know Abu Ali said the accusation simply does not jibe with the mild-mannered boy they knew through his active role in northern Virginia's Muslim community.
"Three words describe him: calm, quiet peaceful," said Jamal Abdulmoty, who knows the Abu Ali family. "He was very wise, very mature for his age. ... We cannot imagine" that he would be involved in an assassination plot.
Abu Ali had been detained for nearly two years by the Saudi Arabian government. His family sued the U.S. government shortly after his arrest there, claiming the Saudis were essentially holding him at the U.S. government's request.
He was returned to the United States and made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court shortly after his arrival Tuesday at Dulles International Airport. He did not enter a plea, but his lawyer said he would plead innocent.
Despite the serious charges Abu Ali faces, his family said Tuesday it was a victory just to have him back in the United States.
"As long as Ahmed has his day in court, I know he will be innocent," said his mother, Faten Abu Ali.
His father, Omar Abu Ali, said Ahmed was born in Houston and raised in northern Virginia, just a few miles from the nation's capital. He attended the Islamic Saudi Academy and graduated as valedictorian.
The private school's teachings have come under scrutiny since the Sept. 11 attacks. Federal court documents in a case against another academy graduate suspected of terrorism indicate that student discussions following Sept. 11 took an anti-American bent and that some students considered the attacks legitimate "payback" for American mistreatment of the Muslim world.
Last year, the school also faced criticism for using textbooks that taught first-graders that Judaism and Christianity are false religions.
Omar Abu Ali, who hadn't seen his son for several years before Tuesday's court appearance, said his son looked "OK" but that he seemed to have lost weight. He had no doubt of his son's innocence.
"It's lies. It's all lies," he said of the government's case.
Abu Ali's lawyers expressed concern that the government's case may be based on evidence obtained through torture. At Tuesday's hearing, Abu Ali offered to show the judge the scars on his back as proof that he was tortured by Saudi authorities.
"He has the evidence on his back," lawyer Ashraf Nubani told the court. "He was whipped. He was handcuffed for days at a time."
According to the indictment, Abu Ali discussed Bush-assassination plans with an unidentified al-Qaida member in 2002 and 2003, while Abu Ali was attending college in Saudi Arabia.
They discussed two scenarios, the indictment said, one in which Abu Ali "would get close enough to the president to shoot him on the street" and, alternatively, "an operation in which Abu Ali would detonate a car bomb."
While the indictment does not identify the conspirator, it says he was one of 19 people publicly identified by the Saudi government in 2003 as terrorists.
The only other detail of the alleged plot in the indictment states that Abu Ali received a religious blessing from another unidentified conspirator to assassinate the president.
The White House had no comment on the indictment, referring questions to the Justice Department.
U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said in a statement Tuesday that "after the devastating terrorist attack ... of Sept. 11, this defendant turned his back on America and joined the cause of al-Qaida. He now stands charged with some of the most serious offenses our nation can bring against supporters of terrorism."
More than 100 friends and family jammed the courthouse to show their support for Abu Ali. Many of them laughed in the courtroom when government lawyers described the alleged assassination plot.
The court papers also spell out some of Abu Ali's alleged associations with al-Qaida. In September 2002, according to the indictment, Abu Ali told a friend of his interest in joining al-Qaida. At one point, Abu Ali decided to fight against the Americans in Afghanistan, and unsuccessfully applied for a visa to Iran as a means to gain entry into Afghanistan, according to the indictment.
Al-Qaida members also allegedly provided training in weapons, explosives and document forgery to Abu Ali, the indictment said.
Abu Ali will be in court again Thursday. His lawyers hope to obtain his release pending trial.
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