WASHINGTON -- Nabil al-Marabh was number 27 on the FBI's list of terror suspects after Sept. 11.
He trained in Afghanistan's militant camps and sent money to a terror camp roommate who was once a Boston cabbie convicted in a foiled plot to bomb a hotel. He 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.
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.
Marabh "intended to martyr himself in an attack against the United States," an FBI agent wrote in a December 2002 report. A footnote in Marabh's deportation ruling last year added, "The FBI has been unable to rule out the possibility that 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 US attorney in Chicago, signifying its importance. The informant alleged Marabh told him of specific terrorist plans during their time in prison.
Even the judge who accepted Marabh's plea agreement on minor immigration charges in 2002 balked. "Something about this case just makes me feel uncomfortable," Judge Richard Arcara said in court. The Justice Department assured the judge that Marabh did not have terrorist ties.
A second judge who ultimately ordered Marabh's deportation sided with FBI agents, federal prosecutors, and Customs agents in the field who believed Marabh was tied to terrorism.
"The court finds applicant does present a danger to national security," US Immigration Judge Robert D. Newberry ruled, concluding Marabh was "credibly linked to elements of terrorism" and had a "propensity to lie."
Neither the courts nor Marabh's attorneys were given access to the most striking allegations provided by the Jordanian informant.
Asked to explain the decision to free 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 Marabh to:
Raed Hijazi, the Boston cab driver convicted in Jordan for plotting to blow up an American-frequented hotel in Amman during year 2000 celebrations. Marabh and Hijazi were roommates at the Afghan training camps and later in the United States.
The Detroit apartment where four men were arrested in what became the administration's first major terror prosecution after Sept. 11. 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.
FBI documents said Marabh denied being affiliated with Al Qaeda. But he acknowledged receiving "security" training in rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in Afghan mujahideen 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.
Marabh's attorney, Mark Kriger, said yesterday 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.
The informant, Ashwas, who spent time in federal detention with Marabh, was debriefed by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago. He said Marabh told him 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.
He also said Marabh told him that he and Hijazi planned to steal a fuel truck from a rest stop in New York and or New Jersey and detonate it in the heavily traveled Lincoln or Holland tunnels, but the plan was foiled when Hijazi was arrested.