Born in 1981 in Houston, Texas, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali is a former student at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Virginia. While attending this Saudi-subsidized private high school that serves the children of hundreds of Saudi nationals (and promotes intolerance of non-Muslims), Abu Ali taught Islamic studies to younger children at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in the local town of Falls Church.
After graduating (as valedictorian) from the Academy in 1999, Abu Ali, whose classmates named him “Most Likely to Be a Martyr,” briefly studied engineering at the University of Maryland, then moved to Saudi Arabia in 2000 to study the Qu’ran and Sharia Law at the Islamic University of Medina. He returned to northern Virginia later that year and was in the U.S. when the 9/11 attacks occurred, but he resumed his studies in Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2002.
In June 2003, Saudi authorities arrested Abu Ali on suspicion that he was plotting to assassinate President George W. Bush and was trying to set up an al Qaeda terrorist cell in the United States.
A few days after his arrest, the FBI searched Abu Ali’s room at his parents’ house and found, among his possessions: a document praising Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the 9/11 attacks; Arabic-language audiotapes in Arabic promoting violent jihad, the killing of Jews, and a battle by Muslims against Christians and Jews; and a book written by al Qaeda official Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which the author characterizes democracy as a new religion that must be destroyed by war.
In February 2005 Abu Ali was transferred to the U.S., in preparation for trial.
A 16-page U.S. Justice Department indictment indicated that in 2002-03, Abu Ali had attempted to become an al Qaeda operative and had discussed, with unidentified al Qaeda members, his plans to kill Bush and to “conduct a terrorist operation in the United States.”
“After the devastating terrorist attack and murders of September 11, the defendant [a U.S. citizen] turned his back on America and joined the cause of al Qaeda,” U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said. “He now stands charged with some of the most serious offenses our nation can bring.”
By contrast, Abu Ali’s family and friends described the defendant as a quiet student and devout Muslim. “He was a really great kid, moderate in his views and not an extremist,” said Mahdi Bray, Executive Director of the Muslim American Society.
Abu Ali went to trial in November 2005, charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization, contributing goods and services to al Qaeda, receiving services from al Qaeda, conspiring to assassinate the President, and conspiring to hijack and destroy aircraft. Largely on the basis of a detailed confession he had made while in Saudi custody, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict on all counts.
On March 29, 2006, Abu Ali was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his crimes. Prosecutors had pushed for a life sentence, but Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, who presided over the case, explained that the lighter sentence was due to the fact that Abu Ali’s actions “did not result in one single actual victim. That fact must be taken into account.”
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the conviction but overturned the sentence on the grounds that the prior Court had failed to abide by federal sentencing guidelines calling for life in prison.