WASHINGTON - A suspected member of al-Qaida who prosecutors say once talked with Ahmed Omar Abu Ali about assassinating President Bush was killed by Saudi authorities in a shootout 17 months ago, the Justice Department disclosed yesterday.
The disclosure that a potential witness in the case is dead could complicate the prosecution of Abu Ali on terrorism charges in an indictment against him that was unsealed Tuesday in Virginia. It came as prosecutors called Abu Ali a danger to society and urged that he be held without bail.
The alleged discussions in Saudi Arabia about killing Bush were cited in the indictment of Abu Ali, an American who went there to study. He was arrested there in 2003 and held there without charges until this week.
"It now turns out the only other witness to these supposed conversations about killing the president is dead, and that raises questions about how the government is going to prove its case," said Edward B. MacMahon Jr., a lawyer for Abu Ali. "I think they've got a problem."
The dead man, among individuals the Saudis said had been planning attacks there, was not identified in the court papers, which referred to him only as "co-conspirator No. 2."
The indictment alleges that he and Abu Ali "discussed plans" in 2002 or 2003 for Abu Ali to assassinate Bush by either shooting him or detonating a car bomb.
In a new filing in the case yesterday, the Justice Department disclosed in a footnote that co-conspirator No. 2 "was killed in a shootout with Saudi law enforcement authorities in or around September 2003."
Justice Department officials declined to provide details of his death or discuss how it would affect the case against Abu Ali, who was valedictorian in 1999 at the Islamic Saudi Academy, in suburban Washington.
But it appeared that the footnote was referring to a gun battle between Saudi authorities and suspected terrorists in September 2003 that killed several militants who had been linked by Saudi authorities to suicide bombings months before at residential compounds in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Prosecutors have connected Abu Ali to people in Saudi Arabia who were, in turn, linked to the Riyadh bombings and to a Northern Virginia group that held paramilitary training in support of Islamic causes, law enforcement officials said.
Some federal prosecutors and FBI officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had concerns about the case against Abu Ali that went beyond the difficulties created by the death of "co-conspirator No. 2."
They said they worried that the prosecution, by relying on information from overseas intelligence sources, could become bogged down in legal difficulties, and could become overshadowed by allegations from Abu Ali's family that he was tortured in Saudi custody with the knowledge of U.S. officials.
A federal terrorism prosecutor at the Justice Department said the defense is almost certain to raise accusations that the testimony of foreign detainees was tainted by alleged torture and that "I think it's going to make it very difficult for the government to make its case."