WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 - An American student who was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for the last 20 months was returned to the United States and accused by the Justice Department on Tuesday of plotting with members of Al Qaeda in 2003 to assassinate President Bush.
In an indictment unsealed in federal court in Alexandria, Va., the student, a 23-year-old American citizen named Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, is charged with providing material support for terrorism. Mr. Abu Ali is accused of training with Al Qaeda overseas and wanting to "become a planner of terrorist operations" like Mohammed Atta or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, two Qaeda leaders central to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The indictment's accusations rely mainly on the testimony of several unnamed co-conspirators.
While American officials said they took the threat seriously, the indictment suggests that any plot to assassinate Mr. Bush did not move beyond the discussion stages among extremists in Saudi Arabia, and Mr. Abu Ali was not charged under the federal statute on assassinations.
Friends of Mr. Abu Ali and defense lawyers denied that he was part of any terrorist plot and accused the Justice Department of an overzealous prosecution. They said that Mr. Abu Ali, a valedictorian at an Islamic high school in suburban Washington, was the victim of torture at the hands of the Saudis after his arrest there in June 2003, an assertion that a federal judge in Washington appeared to validate in a recent ruling in a lawsuit brought by Mr. Abu Ali's family to force his release.
Mr. Abu Ali was returned to the United States this week to face charges of providing material support to terrorists. At a brief hearing on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Alexandria, he did not enter a plea but offered through his lawyers to provide evidence of Saudi torture in the form of markings on his back.
The judge declined, putting off the torture issue until a later hearing. Edward B. MacMahon, a defense lawyer for Mr. Abu Ali, said in an interview after the hearing that the judge "would have seen evidence of torture, scars."
"He looks like someone who's been whipped," Mr. MacMahon said, "and it's a very disturbing event for this country when our government is willing to use evidence obtained by torture in another country."
"It's lies. It's all lies," said Omar Abu Ali, Mr. Abu Ali's father, after the hearing, according to The Associated Press. "The government lied from the very first day."
Mr. Abu Ali has been at the center of a prolonged international conflict over his detention by the Saudis, as the defendant's family in the United States has said the United States effectively orchestrated his detention and interrogation in Saudi Arabia.
The family sued to force Mr. Abu Ali's release from Saudi custody, saying American officials threatened to declare him an enemy combatant and send him to a detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, if he did not cooperate. Judge John D. Bates has not issued a ruling on Mr. Abu Ali's detention, but he has expressed support for many of the family's central contentions and skepticism toward those of the government.
In an opinion in December, Judge Bates wrote, "There has been at least some circumstantial evidence that Abu Ali has been tortured during interrogations with the knowledge of the United States." He added that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who were present for Saudi interrogations, "have despaired at his continued detention, and more than one United States official has stated that Abu Ali is no longer a threat to the United States and there is no active interrogation."
Saudi and American officials denied on Tuesday that Mr. Abu Ali had been tortured. "We have seen no evidence that Abu Ali was tortured or mistreated while in Saudi custody," said a senior Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Justice Department officials declined to discuss why they had decided to bring terrorism charges against Mr. Abu Ali now, after past indications that some F.B.I. investigators did not consider him a threat.
"I suspect it's no coincidence that this man sat in detention for 20 months until a federal judge in the United States was threatening to require the American government to disclose its arrangements with the Saudi government for holding him," said David D. Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who is representing Mr. Abu Ali's family in the case. "The lawsuit gave the government a tremendous incentive to bring some charges."
Mr. Abu Ali is the oldest of five children of Omar and Faten Abu Ali, who moved to Houston from their native Jordan in the 1970's for the father to study mathematics. The father has worked at the Saudi Embassy in Washington for more than 20 years in computer operations, embassy officials said.
After the family moved to Northern Virginia in the suburbs of Washington, Mr. Abu Ali attended high school at the Islamic Saudi Academy, a private school in Alexandria that serves hundreds of children of Saudi citizens and is subsidized by the Saudi government. He graduated in 1999 as valedictorian of his class.
Shaker El Sayed, a friend of the family, said Mr. Abu Ali taught Islamic studies to young children at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church in his spare time during high school. After studying engineering briefly at the University of Maryland, he moved to Saudi Arabia in 2000 to study the Koran at the Islamic University of Medina.
"By then," Mr. El Sayed said, "he wanted to be a teacher or a Muslim scholar."
Mr. Abu Ali returned to Virginia in 2000 but resumed his studies in Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2002. It was then, the Justice Department asserted in Mr. Abu Ali's indictment, that he sought to become an operative of Al Qaeda through contacts with his former roommate at the Islamic University of Medina.
The indictment, citing the testimony of several unnamed co-conspirators, states that in 2002 and 2003, Mr. Abu Ali and a Qaeda associate "discussed plans for Abu Ali to assassinate President of the United States George W. Bush." The indictment says that they discussed two options in which Mr. Abu Ali "would get close enough to the president to shoot him on the street" or would "detonate a car bomb." One member of Al Qaeda gave him a "religious blessing" to kill Mr. Bush, the government charged.
Mr. Abu Ali received training from Qaeda associates in the use of weapons, hand grenades and other explosives, as well as in document forgery, and he wanted to travel to Afghanistan to take part in violent "jihad" against American military personnel there, the indictment charges. Qaeda associates also gave him 7,750 Saudi riyals, or the equivalent of $2,066, to buy a laptop computer, a cellphone and books, it states.
The Saudis, apparently acting in consultation with American officials, entered his classroom and arrested him on June 11, 2003, while he was taking his final exams at the Islamic University of Medina. American investigators said at the time that they suspected that he had links to other terrorist suspects in Saudi Arabia who were implicated in a plot in Northern Virginia to use paintball games as paramilitary training and who were arrested at the same time. Some were later convicted of supporting terrorism.
Law enforcement officials said they had no indication that any Qaeda plot to assassinate Mr. Bush moved to the stage of actual operations, but the Justice Department said it considered Mr. Abu Ali a serious threat.
"After the devastating terrorist attack and murders of Sept. 11," said Paul J. McNulty, the United States attorney in Alexandria, Mr. Abu Ali "turned his back on America and joined the cause of Al Qaeda."
"He now stands charged with some of the most serious offenses our nation can bring against supporters of terrorism," Mr. McNulty said.
The charges, if borne out in court, would represent one of the more notable terrorism prosecutions in many months brought by the Justice Department on the domestic front. Several of the government's major terror prosecutions, including cases in Detroit, Brooklyn and Albany, have suffered significant setbacks in the courtroom or collapsed altogether amid questions about prosecutors' tactics.
John Files contributed reporting for this article.