Abu Ali, 23, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Falls Church, was charged Tuesday with conspiring with al Qaeda to kill the president in a plan that prosecutors said was hatched while the man studied in Saudi Arabia in 2002 and 2003.
Those who know Abu Ali said the accusation simply does not jibe with the mild-mannered boy they knew through his active role in northern Virginia's Muslim community.
"Three words describe him: calm, quiet peaceful," said Jamal Abdulmoty, who knows the Abu Ali family. "He was very wise, very mature for his age. ... We cannot imagine" that he would be involved in an assassination plot.
Abu Ali had been detained for nearly two years by the Saudi Arabian government. His family sued the U.S. government shortly after his arrest there, claiming the Saudis were essentially holding him at the U.S. government's request.
He was returned to the United States and made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court shortly after his arrival Tuesday at Dulles International Airport. He did not enter a plea, but his lawyer said he would plead innocent.
Abu Ali's parents insist their son was tortured for almost two years in a Saudi Arabian prison and has the scars to prove it, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.
"Regarding this plot about our president, it's a joke. It's more lies. I can just say because my son was tortured these indictments came. It's lies over lies," said his mother, Faten Abu Ali.
Abu Ali's indictment is just the latest in a series of cases involving alleged foreign detention and torture that have deeply troubled U.S. courts.
"He was there in Saudi Arabia," says CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. They were evaluating him and they were essentially keeping him on ice until the federal government was willing to do something with him."
Cohen notes that the curious case is ato arise since Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's a little bit John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban." It's a little bit Zacarias Moussaoui, the al Qaeda foot soldier the feds still can't get to trial. It's a little bit Yaser Esam Hamdi, the "enemy combatant" who last June won a big ruling from the Supreme Court,'' said Cohen. "And it's a little bit Guantanamo Bay, where detainees are fighting to have federal courts recognize whatever rights they may have."
In Abu Ali's case, the government apparently relied on information gathered by the Saudis to charge that he discussed with al Qaeda operatives plans to "shoot [President Bush] on the street" or "detonate a car bomb" near him.
The indictment also charges Abu Ali tried to enlist in the fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, received money from al Qaeda to buy a computer and planned to start up an al Qaeda cell once back in the U.S.
But from the day he disappeared into Saudi custody in June 2003, Abu Ali's family has been fighting to get him back to the U.S. and face the judicial process here.
And last fall the family's attorney filed an affidavit charging an assistant U.S. Attorney seemed aware Abu Ali was being tortured overseas. In reply to a question, the U.S. Attorney allegedly "smirked and stated, 'He's no good for us here. He has no fingernails left,'" according to the affidavit. A government spokesman declined comment on the charge.
His father, Omar Abu Ali, said Ahmed was born in Houston and raised in northern Virginia, just a few miles from the nation's capital. He attended the Islamic Saudi Academy and graduated as valedictorian.
The private school's teachings have come under scrutiny since the Sept. 11 attacks. Federal court documents in a case against another academy graduate suspected of terrorism indicate that student discussions following Sept. 11 took an anti-American bent and that some students considered the attacks legitimate "payback" for American mistreatment of the Muslim world.
Last year, the school also faced criticism for using textbooks that taught first-graders that Judaism and Christianity are false religions.
Omar Abu Ali, who hadn't seen his son for several years before Tuesday's court appearance, said his son looked "OK" but that he seemed to have lost weight. He had no doubt of his son's innocence.
"It's lies. It's all lies," he said of the government's case.
Abu Ali's lawyers expressed concern that the government's case may be based on evidence obtained through torture. At Tuesday's hearing, Abu Ali offered to show the judge the scars on his back as proof that he was tortured by Saudi authorities.
"He has the evidence on his back," lawyer Ashraf Nubani told the court. "He was whipped. He was handcuffed for days at a time."
The White House had no comment on the indictment, referring questions to the Justice Department.
U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said in a statement Tuesday that "after the devastating terrorist attack ... of Sept. 11, this defendant turned his back on America and joined the cause of al-Qaida. He now stands charged with some of the most serious offenses our nation can bring against supporters of terrorism."
Abu Ali will be in court again Thursday. His lawyers hope to obtain his release pending trial.