The prospect of his going free troubles security officials on both sides of the Atlantic, and leaves some bewildered by Washington's decision to drop its case against him. British authorities say they don't have sufficient evidence to try Doha, and plan instead to deport him to his native Algeria. What happens then? "Either Doha is left free to do as he pleases, and probably one day vanish to resume his plotting work," says a French counter-terror official. "Or the Algerians cite some pretext for arresting and jailing him, and ensure he's not a threat to anyone."
Doha (a.k.a. "The Doctor," Rachid, Amar Makhlolif, and Didier Ajuelo) was arrested in February 2001 while trying to travel from London to Saudi Arabia on a fake passport. Six months later, the U.S. filed an extradition request after a Federal grand jury indicted Doha as a co-conspirator in the LAX plot, based on evidence and an affidavit signed by would-be bomber Ahmed Ressam that Doha had overseen the attempted attack. "[Doha] actually moved Ressam from Afghanistan back to Canada" to plan and execute the Millennium bombing, explains a senior U.S. intelligence official. But after initially sharing his knowledge of terror networks, Ressam ceased cooperating with prosecutors sometime in 2003 and even after two years of coaxing and cajoling, claims to have "forgotten" the information he'd earlier provided.
In August 2005 shortly after Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in prison U.S. officials withdrew the Doha indictment, explaining that "Ressam's testimony would have been an essential part in the Government's evidence at trial against Abu Doha."
Even though Ressam refused to testify in court, the fact that he had spilled the beans on Doha and evidence pointing to Doha's role as a Qaeda recruiter raises questions over the U.S. decision to drop the extradition request particularly if the consequence of doing so is that Doha will go free. With no terror-related charges pending, Doha faces an immigration hearing in early 2007 that may end with his deportation from Britain. In Washington, officials at the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, as well at the CIA, refused to comment on Doha's case. (Each referred TIME to the other departments for an answer as to how the U.S. could lose its purchase on such a major alleged terror suspect.) Says one European security official with long involvement in the investigation of Doha's activities, "There is something strange about this case."
U.S. officials are certainly aware of the danger of Doha being turned loose. "There's concern about what he'll do," says the U.S. intelligence official. "After he's released, he'll probably return to his old friends. Anybody who's been engaged in a potential plot against us and who we believe will return to being engaged with the same group that he was beforehand would cause some problems."
French and U.S. officials concur on a picture of Doha's activities during the 1990s that included serving as al-Qaeda's coordinator for Europe, and recruiting scores, perhaps hundreds, of young Muslims into clandestine network, sending many for training in Afghanistan at a specially designated camp,
Although France, Italy and Germany had evidence tying Doha to specific plots, they refrained from making their own extradition requests once the U.S. had signaled its intention to put Doha on trial. But now that the U.S. case has been dropped, it's too late for the Europeans to step in, because the cases in which they would have charged Doha have already been tried, and can't legally be reopened without new evidence against him.
The French are incredulous at the prospect of Doha going free. "How can you have Abu Zubaydah, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, and who knows how many low-level fighters in secret camps and let someone of Abu Doha's stature free by deporting him?" the French counter-terrorism official asks. "It's incomprehensible that someone with his profile will be deported to freedom and allowed to resume his activities."
So incomprehensible, in fact, that some suspect it won't be that simple. In light of Algeria's traditionally ruthless treatment of Islamist militants, Amnesty International warns that Britain may be sending him home to face abuses. "If Abu Doha is deported as planned, he faces grave danger of detention and torture in Algeria," says an Amnesty spokesman in London, who says at least 12 specific cases of alleged secret detention and torture in Algeria have been reported to his group since 2002. In August, a British court ruling struck down challenges to such deportations on human rights grounds, citing Algeria's recently applied Charter For Peace and Reconciliation which offers pardons to security force members and surrendered radicals responsible for violent crimes as a guarantee of fair treatment for deportees. Amnesty mocks that decision and its application in the Doha case, given British officials' own description of Doha as an active security threat rather than the repentant jihadist that Algiers might pardon.
Doha's attorneys are fighting his deportation, but did not respond to multiple requests to comment on the allegations made against their client by counter-terror officials. British Home Office officials would not comment beyond confirming that Doha's deportation case is based on an "immigration violation." Amnesty International fears a darker agenda. "The government claims Abu Doha is a security threat, yet can't convict him of anything here so they send this dangerous man to what one might presume would be freedom in Algeria," the Amnesty spokesman says. "It's very difficult not to wonder if this is being done with the prior knowledge that Algeria will be interning and perhaps interrogating Abu Doha on behalf of the U.S. or U.K."
With reporting by Timothy J. Burger/Washington