How a routine Peoria traffic stop snagged an alleged al-Qaeda terrorist after 9/11

Phil Luciano
Journal Star
This photo was taken when Ali al-Marri was booked into the Peoria County Jail in December 2001.

PEORIA — On Sept 13, 2001, Peoria police officer Greg Metz was on routine patrol near Northwoods Mall when he spotted a possible driving infraction.

The scenario did not scream with great alarm or danger. But Metz, always a stickler for detail, noticed a young child pop up in the back seat of the car, obviously unrestrained.

So, the officer made an unremarkable traffic stop on an otherwise unremarkable day — in what turned out to be likely the most important traffic stop in Peoria history.

The driver was Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who — once federal agents got wind of him — would spent the next eight years embroiled in a tumultuous legal saga in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A book by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft painted al-Marri as an al-Qaeda sleeper agent planning a second wave of terrorism, including the piloting of a plane into the tallest building on the West Coast, the 73-story U.S. Bank building in Los Angeles.

He never got a chance for any such planning, thanks to the mundane traffic stop in Peoria.

Almost 20 years later, Metz — now 65 and six years retired from the force — does not often let his mind drift back to that day. He will not engage in a harrowing mental game of what might have happened on the West Coast if he hadn't been alert while on patrol two days after 9/11.

"I made a lucky stop," he says, "and some people followed up." 

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About 4 p.m. on that Sept. 13, Metz was on patrol along southbound Sterling Avenue,  just south of Northwoods Mall. In the car ahead, a little boy (al-Marri's 5-year-old son) suddenly scooched up from the back seat and stared at Metz's police cruiser. As was obvious to Metz, the youth was not in a child-restraint seat.

The lad then mouthed something, apparently to his father. Metz cannot read lips. Nor does he know what language the child spoke. But he intuitively knew the meaning. With a light chuckle, Metz recalls, "You could tell what he was saying: 'Look, Dad: It's the police!'"

Moments later, south of Interstate 74, the car failed to signal before turning onto a residential street, then rolled through a stop sign. Metz, following all the way, activated his emergency lights and siren, then pulled the car over.

As Metz stepped to the car, the driver rolled down his window. Though polite, he started rambling through an account that seemed peculiar.

He pointed to a nearby house sporting a "For Sale" sign, saying he had planned to stop there — not to buy it, but rent it. He also mentioned that he was a Qatari national in Peoria to attend Bradley University. He had just registered for classes, the last day to do so, and had just paid in cash — thousands of dollars, as if carrying around that sum of money was no big deal.

"I couldn't put my finger on it, but something wasn't right," Metz said. "... All these things started adding up."

The officer went back to his cruiser to run a computer check on the driver. It turned out that Ali al-Marri was wanted on a 10-year-old Peoria County arrest warrant for failing to appear in court on a DUI count.

The warrant meant al-Marri would be heading to the Peoria County Jail. But, as in all traffic arrests with kids in a car, Metz sought a solution for the boy.

Al-Marri said he and his family were staying at a motel in East Peoria. So, Metz drove him and the boy to the motel, where they were met by a Tazewell County sheriff's deputy to help with the situation. Al-Marri let the officers into the room, where al-Marri talked in Arabic to a woman, apparently the boy's mother.

Al-Marri then opened a briefcase, which Metz could see was stuffed with high-dollar currency. 

"What the hell is this guy doing with all this money?" Metz thought to himself.

Al-Marri peeled off three $100 bills, offering to pay his bail. The officers said he would first have to be processed at the jail, where he could post bail. So, al-Marri took the money with him as police took him to jail.

Soon, Metz's shift ended and he headed home. At first, he chalked up the stop to just another quirk of the job. But as he ate dinner with his wife, the stop — all of the oddities, but especially the cash-stuffed briefcase — kept nagging at him.

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So, Metz made a call to the Police Department's FBI liaison, explaining the traffic stop and motel encounter. Then he hung up the phone and pretty much forgot about the matter.

But about three months later, he read a Journal Star story about a Qatari national being held at the Peoria County Jail regarding an unspecified connection to the federal investigation into 9/11. Metz flashed back to the Sept. 13 traffic stop.

"Is this the same guy?" he wondered.

As more stories followed, Metz talked to an out-of-town FBI acquaintance working on the terrorism investigation. Metz explained his connection to the traffic stop and asked about any al-Marri involvement in the attacks.

The agent wouldn't budge: "Can't tell you."

Soon, though, Metz — along with the rest of Peoria — learned about allegations involving al-Marri. Metz never got a specific answer as to why al-Marri had so much money in the briefcase. But he did later read about Ashcroft's bombastic accusations about a supposed second wave of terrorism to be engineered by al-Marri.

Two decades later, the retired Metz busies himself with a small landscape business he runs. He does not dwell on recollections or what-ifs regarding al-Marri. But, as with all traffic stops over his police career, he was glad to have been vigilant with Ali al-Marri.

"It's just part of the job," he says.