Terrorist Ressam recants everything he said as informant
Al Qaida-trained terrorist Ahmed Ressam was resentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in planning a millennium holiday bombing of Los Angeles International Airport.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Ressam's crimesAhmed Ressam was convicted of the following crimes:
1. Conspiring to commit an act of terrorism
2. Conspiring to place an explosive in proximity to a terminal
3. Possession of false identification
4. Use of a fictitious name for admission into the country
5. Making false statements
6. Smuggling explosives into the country
7. Transporting explosives
8. Possession of an unregistered destructive device
9. Carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony
Al Qaida-trained terrorist Ahmed Ressam stood defiant before a federal judge in Seattle Wednesday and recanted everything he'd ever said as a government informant, an about-face he understood could land him in prison for the rest of his life.
"I did not know what I was saying," said Ressam, who claimed the FBI and attorneys "put words in my mouth." Ressam said years of interrogations and solitary confinement after his arrest nearly nine years ago gave him a "mental condition" that affected his memory.
Ressam, 40, convicted of planning to set off a powerful suitcase bomb at the Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium holiday, was back in court after his first 22-year sentence was thrown out on a legal technicality.
The government argued that life in prison would be appropriate after Ressam had reneged on his promise to cooperate in the war on terror and had again embraced radical Islam. "He is, once again and unequivocally, a danger to innocent people all over the world," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett.
But U.S. District Judge John Coughenour — who has publicly held up Ressam's trial in Los Angeles as a counterpoint to the Bush Administration's secret tribunals — told prosecutors that the government's continued "harsh treatment" of Ressam was at least partly to blame for his broken promises.
He then reinstated the 22-year sentence first imposed against Ressam three years ago for conspiring to commit an act of terrorism and eight other counts. The onetime Algerian waiter and small-time crook whose plot presaged the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and whose insight into the operation of al-Qaida would prove, in Coughenour's words, "unique in its breadth and scope," will be eligible for parole in 2018 when he's 51.
Jeffrey Sullivan, U.S. attorney for Western Washington, was dismayed by the judge's decision and said he would seek permission from the U.S. Department of Justice to appeal.
"What [Ressam] told us today is that he's a terrorist, a trained killer ... who is going to do this again," Sullivan said.
Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, in Port Angeles after coming off the ferry from Victoria, B.C. Inspectors found electronic timers, powders and liquids in the trunk of his rental car that turned out to be the makings of a powerful bomb.
The investigation that followed showed Ressam had been recruited by a radical Islamic cell in Montreal and had trained in Osama bin Laden-sponsored terrorism camps in Afghanistan. His target was the Los Angeles airport.
After his conviction in April 2001, Ressam cooperated with federal authorities in hopes of winning a shorter prison sentence. He became a key source of information on the operation of al-Qaida in Western Europe and North America after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, providing information that led to the prosecution of some of the terrorist organization's top leaders.
Ressam stopped cooperating in 2003, and a court-appointed psychiatrist found that he was suffering from a mental breakdown after years in solitary confinement and repeated interrogations.
On Wednesday, Ressam, clad in prison khaki and speaking in Arabic through an interpreter, recanted his court testimony that led to the 2002 conviction of Mohktar Haouari in New York. Haouari, who was extradited from Montreal, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2002 for helping with logistics as Ressam moved to carry out his plan.
Dan Ollen, Haouari's trial lawyer in New York, said later that Haouari already has tried and failed once to obtain a new trial based on earlier reports of Ressam's falling out with the government.
Coughenour defended the sentence imposed on Ressam by pointing to the significance of Ressam's earlier cooperation with intelligence agencies from the U.S. and France, Spain, Germany, Italy and England. Information provided by Ressam, the judge said, "proved to be invaluable and ... almost certainly prevented other attacks."
Bartlett argued that Ressam had intentionally deceived the government and the court.
"His memory is fine," Bartlett said. "Only now, he's not using it to help us fight terrorists. Now he's using it to try to free as many terrorists as he can."
This was the second time Ressam appeared before Coughenour for sentencing. His first sentence, also 22 years, was thrown out by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because Coughenour had failed to cite for the record the applicable sentencing guidelines, and why he diverged from them. Ressam faced a minimum of 65 years in prison — and up to 130 years — when he was convicted.
At the first sentencing hearing, Coughenour angered prosecutors and federal agents by criticizing the Bush administration's practice of holding some terrorism suspects without trial as "enemy combatants" and preparing to try others in secret military tribunals.
Among those in the federal courtroom in Seattle on Wednesday was Gordon Haberman, whose 25-year-old daughter, Andrea, died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. He said he was disappointed in the sentence given to Ressam.
Haberman, who traveled to Seattle from Wisconsin for the sentencing, called Ressam a coward.
"He meant to kill a lot of people," said Haberman, whose daughter was working on the 92nd floor of the North Tower when it was struck by a plane piloted by terrorists. Andrea was engaged to be married and on her first business trip.
Indicted almost solely on Ressam's testimony were Samir Ait Mohamed in Montreal, who Ressam said helped him plan the Los Angeles airport attacks and who once proposed setting off a bomb in a Jewish neighborhood there, and a London al-Qaida recruiter named Abu Doha.
Doha, according to Ressam's testimony, recruited for al-Qaida cells in the U.S. and Canada and acted as go-between between Ressam and al-Qaida higher-ups, including Abu Zubaydah, who ran Osama bin Laden's terrorism training camps in Afghanistan, and bin Laden himself.
Bartlett said Doha is "without question, one of the most dangerous terrorists ever charged by the United States" and is free today because Ressam stopped cooperating.
Ait Mohamed was deported in January 2006 from Canada to Algeria after he voluntarily agreed to drop his fight against a deportation order. Doha was released from prison in London, where he was fighting extradition to the U.S. for trial on charges based almost entirely on Ressam's testimony. He remains in England, where he is fighting deportation, according to court documents.
Ressam also recanted statements implicating two other Canadian men in terrorist activities, including one who helped finance Ressam's plot and who later was captured fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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