Jury Finds Abu Ali Guilty on Terrorism Charges

Larry Abramson tells Robert Siegel about the guilty verdict in the trial of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, an Arab-American accused of joining al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Alexandria, Virginia, a jury has found another US citizen guilty on nine counts of aiding al-Qaeda and plotting terrorist acts, including a plan to kill President Bush. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was in Saudi Arabia when he was arrested, and he claimed that authorities there tortured him into making a confession. Prosecutors denied that and said Abu Ali's claims of torture were fiction. NPR's Larry Abramson is here to talk about the case.

And, Larry, what exactly was Abu Ali convicted of?

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Well, most notably Abu Ali was accused of being part of a conspiracy to kill President Bush, either with a car bomb that he was going to drive up close to the president or some other method. The plot actually never got past the talking phase, but it was enough to form part of the conspiracy charges against him. He was also accused of associating with al-Qaeda and planning terrorist acts that included flying planes into buildings, although, again, most of these things never actually took real form; they were just discussed.

SIEGEL: And I gather the case against him was drawn, in part, from what Saudi authorities got out of him, and he said, `I was just making that up to avoid further torture.'

ABRAMSON: That's right. He moved--he was born and raised here and lived in northern Virginia for a long time, moved to Saudi Arabia to study at college in Medina, and he was arrested in 2003 by Saudi police in the wake of the bombings of residential quarters in Riyadh that you may recall. He told the grisly tale of then being beaten and whipped repeatedly by Saudi police until he agreed to confess. His defense team tried to get the case thrown out on that basis, saying that the confession had been coerced, and that tactic never worked. Jurors also saw the same pictures of Abu Ali with marks on his back supposedly caused by whips. They heard the defense claim that members of al-Qaeda had basically fingered him as a patsy, as a fall guy, so that other al-Qaeda members could get away. And the defense tried to introduce evidence from other people who'd suffered from Saudi brutality and been forced to confess. The judge wouldn't allow that, and the judge was skeptical all the way through the trial about the torture claims, and, obviously, the jury was as well.

SIEGEL: And the jury, obviously, was less skeptical of what he actually said in the way of the confession, I would take...

ABRAMSON: That's right. And they had a videotaped confession, which was quite flagrant in the fact that he was boasting of what he was doing. It was a little bit harder to believe that this--somebody was forced to be such a convincing terrorist, I guess you might say. And if you believe that he wasn't tortured, then this confession went a long way toward convicted him. And this trial actually became, to a large extent, a discussion about whether or not the Bush administration was actually using Saudi Arabia to get confessions out of somebody like him. They've been accused of doing that in other...

SIEGEL: Outsourcing interrogation...

ABRAMSON: Exactly.

SIEGEL: ...was the claim there.

ABRAMSON: Yeah. But the judge never bought that argument; never bought the idea that this man had been forced into a confession and, you know, dropped that. And, as I said, the jury didn't buy that argument, either.

SIEGEL: Well, for nine counts of aiding al-Qaeda, plotting terrorism, what might Abu Ali get in the way of a sentence?

ABRAMSON: He could get life in prison for that.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: NPR's Larry Abramson.

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