WASHINGTON — An accused al-Qaida sleeper agent held for 5-1/2 years at a Navy brig in South Carolina will soon be sent to Illinois for trial in civilian court, a move the government has fought for years saying terror suspects caught in the U.S. could be held indefinitely without charges.
Two people familiar with the case of Qatar native Ali al-Marri said Thursday the government plans to transfer him to the civilian court system. One of them said he would be charged with providing support to terrorists. The two people spoke on condition of anonymity because it's a pending criminal case.
The transfer could avert a Supreme Court hearing in April and a subsequent ruling that would govern other cases against accused terrorists. Al-Marri's transfer is the first signal of how the Obama administration is likely to handle accused terrorists, a significant shift from the strategy of the Bush administration.
Since shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, government lawyers argued that the president has the wartime authority to send the military into any U.S. neighborhood, capture a citizen _ or legal resident like al-Marri _ and hold him in prison without charge, indefinitely.
Putting al-Marri into the federal court system follows a similar move made by the Bush administration with another enemy combatant, Jose Padilla. Padilla, once held at the same brig as al-Marri, was eventually convicted of terror-related charges in federal court in Florida.
The decision on al-Marri was reported separately Thursday by the Web sites of The Washington Post and The New Yorker magazine.
Al-Marri was the subject of one of President Barack Obama's first official acts, signing an executive order for "a prompt and thorough" review of al-Marri's continued detention.
Now, according to those familiar with the case, that review has resulted in a decision to put him back into the civilian court system.
Justice Dept. spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment on the plans for al-Marri.
"If this is true, it's an important step," said Jonathan Hafetz, one of al-Marri's lawyers. "This is what should have happened seven years ago. Indefinite military detention, without charge, of people with legal residence in America is illegal."
Yet such a move may derail the legal challenge Hafetz and the American Civil Liberties Union have brought to the Supreme Court.
The new administration is facing a March deadline to file papers in the al-Marri case before the court, and transferring him to a criminal courtroom may enable the administration to avoid taking a clear position on enemy combatants.
"It's vital for the Supreme Court to review the case and make that clear once and for all," said Hafetz. "Otherwise the government will be free to do the same thing again."
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 new administration might not want to force the court to decide that issue, thereby preserving the possibility that Obama or future presidents could exercise that power.
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 the brig since 2003.
Al-Marri was arrested in late 2001 as part of the FBI's investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. Prosecutors indicted him on charges of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI, not terror charges.
In June 2003, Bush said al-Marri had vital information about terror plots, declared him an enemy combatant and ordered him transferred to military custody.
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 contended.
Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.