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Case Against Suspected al-Qaida Sleeper Agent Heads to US Court

An alleged terrorism suspect arrested in 2001, following the September 11th terror attacks on the U.S., is expected to be transferred soon from a U.S. military jail in the southern state of South Carolina to a federal prison in the midwestern state of Illinois.

The move is expected after the Obama administration transferred Ali al-Marri's case to a civilian court which charged the Qatari man. The legal maneuvering appears to reverse a Bush administration policy on terrorism detentions, with the U.S Supreme Court scheduled to consider in April the legality of al-Marri's five years in detention.

The U.S. government designated Ali al-Marri an enemy combatant in 2003 and held him in a military jail in South Carolina without charges for more than five years.

The Bush administration accused him of being an al-Qaida "sleeper" (undercover) agent at the time of the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S.

"Al-Marri was sent to the United States as a facilitator for other al-Qaida individuals who would come in to conduct follow-on attacks," said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Al-Marri was the only foreign national held domestically as an enemy combatant. And in 2007 a federal appeals court ruled al-Marri's detention was illegal and violated the constitution by stripping al-Marri of his right to challenge the government in court.

"The court is warning that if you can do this to Mr. al-Marri, they can do it to you - they can do it to your mother," Al-Marri's defense attorney Jonathan Hasetz warned.

After the 2001 attacks, the Bush administration claimed the authority to indefinitely detain suspected terrorists who pose an imminent threat.

Ali Al-Marri, from the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, had been in the U.S. legally, studying at a University in Peoria, Illinois when he was arrested on credit card fraud in December 2001.

Investigators later said they discovered he had links to al-Qaida, including allegations he personally met Osama bin Laden and the alleged mastermind of 2001 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

"Their point of view was that people who are conspiring with al-Qaida who may be sleepers in the U.S. pose a danger that cannot be adequately be dealt with through the normal criminal law proceedings," said George Washington University Law Professor Stephen Saltzburg.

Last year, the Supreme Court agreed it would consider al-Marri's claim that it is unconstitutional to hold him indefinitely. But before the justices could bring up the case, President Barack Obama ordered al-Marri transferred to a civilian court which charged him with two terrorism-related offenses. Legal experts say the move indicates the Obama administration plans to handle terrorism detentions differently.

"Ultimately it probably is not that good to have the Supreme Court, year upon year, having to decide these sensitive war on terror legal questions," says Ilya Shapiro, a Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "These are better left to the national security divisions and the political branches of government."

The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to drop al-Marri's case. The suspect's attorney, however, still wants the justices to rule on whether a president has sweeping authority to label people in the U.S. enemy combatants and detain them indefinitely.