Convicted millennium terrorist Ahmed Ressam was resentenced this morning to 22 years in federal prison despite telling a judge that he had recanted everything he has told the federal government.
Ahmed Ressam was resentenced this morning to 22 years in federal prison for conspiring to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport despite telling a judge that he recanted everything he has told the federal government about terrorist activities.
Federal prosecutors had urged U.S. District Judge John Coughenour to send Ressam to prison for life — a sentence Ressam said he would accept now that he had cleared his conscience about his cooperation, which ended in 2003. Prosecutors pointed out that Ressam’s defiance has cost two high-profile terrorism prosecutions so far, and that Ressam has actively tried to help the cases of two “terrorists” he had fingered years before.
Ressam, clad in prison khaki and speaking in Arabic through an interpreter, also recanted the testimony that led to the 2002 conviction of Mohktar Haouari in New York. Haouari was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2002 for being Ressam’s contact in the U.S. and helping with logistics as Ressam moved to carry out his plan to set off a massive suitcase bomb in the Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium. Ressam testified during Haouari’s trial.
“I did not know what I was saying,” Ressam told the court, adding that the FBI and attorneys “put words in my mouth.” Ressam said years of interrogations and solitary confinement gave him a “mental condition” that affected his memory.
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U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan was dismayed with Coughenour’s decision to reinstate the 22-year sentence first handed down in 2005. Ressam will be eligible for parole in 2018, at the age of 51.
Sullivan said he would seek permission from his superiors at the U.S. Department of Justice to appeal the judge’s sentence.
“What [Ressam] told us today is that he’s a terrorist, a trained killer … who is going to do this again,” Sullivan said.
But Coughenour was defiant as well, defending his decision by pointing to the significance of Ressam’s earlier cooperation, which he said ended at least partly because of the government’s “harsh treatment” of Ressam, which he found contributed “to his early termination of cooperation.”
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett argued that Ressam had intentionally deceived the government and the court. He stopped cooperating in the spring of 2003, just weeks after prosecutors filed a motion for leniency based on his testimony the previous year in the Haouari trial.
Bartlett said the government had intended to withhold that motion to ensure Ressam’s future cooperation, but that the judge, at the urging of Ressam’s attorneys, ordered it filed.
“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 the judge for sentencing. His first sentence, also 22 years, was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the high court let stand his conviction for conspiring to set off a powerful suitcase bomb at the Los Angeles airport during the millennium celebration.
Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, in Port Angeles, coming off the ferry from Victoria, B.C. Inspectors found powders and liquids in the trunk of his rental car that turned out to be the makings of a powerful bomb. The investigation showed Ressam had been recruited by al-Qaida in Montreal and had trained in Osama bin Laden-sponsored terrorism camps in Afghanistan.
Among those in the federal courtroom in Seattle this morning was Gordon Haberman, whose 25-year-old daughter, Andrea, died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, said he was disappointed in the sentence given to Ressam.
Haberman, who traveled to Seattle from Wisconsin for the sentencing, called Ressam a coward and attempted killer.
“He meant to kill a lot of people,” said Haberman.
Three years ago, Coughenour handed Ressam the first 22-year sentence, less than the 35 years sought by the government and a decade longer than the sentence his defense team wanted imposed. If sentenced to maximum terms on all nine felonies he was convicted of, Ressam was looking at 130 years.
Following his conviction, Ressam cooperated with the government to win a lower sentence.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he provided rare and unparalleled insight into the inner workings of al Qaida and its presence in North America. However, after years in solitary confinement and repeated interrogations, he stopped talking in 2003.
Both sides appealed the sentence, and after a three-year course that eventually led to the Supreme Court, the justices sent the case back for resentencing, ordering Coughenour to comply with new case law in imposing the sentence but otherwise leaving Ressam’s convictions in place.
The difference this time is that Ressam had taken over his defense, and planned to make a statement. Up to this point, except for offering a brief apology during the 2005 hearing, Ressam has not spoken about his crimes.
The other thing that has changed is that the government had upped its sentencing recommendation — first to 45 years, and then, today, to life. Bartlett, in a sentencing memorandum filed last week, said Ressam has not only ceased cooperating — forcing the Department of Justice to scuttle two other terrorism prosecutions — he has now begun recanting his earlier statements.
Indicted almost solely on Ressam’s testimony were Samir Ait Mohamed in Montreal, who Ressam said helped him plan the LAX attacks and who once talked of 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 he 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 he is free today because of Ressam.
Ait Mohamed was deported from Canada to Algeria. Doha was released from prison in London, where he was fighting extradition to the U.S. for trial. He remains in England, where he is fighting deportation, according to court documents.
Bartlett said Ressam has recanted some of his earlier statements about others implicated in terrorist activities, including Hassan Zemeri, who Ressam had earlier said helped him set up his cover as a tourist entering the U.S. by providing him with a stolen video camera and $3,500 cash. Zemeri, according to earlier Ressam testimony, knew Ressam was going to the U.S. to commit an act of terrorism.
Ressam has since said Zemeri did not know what Ressam was planning. More recently, Bartlett said, Ressam has recanted statements he made against Adil Charkaoui, who Ressam had said was in the Afghan camps and was someone “about whom the Canadian government should be worried.”
The Canadians have attempted to deport Charkaoui to Morocco, but Ressam withdrew his earlier charges and Charkaoui’s attorneys have renewed their efforts to stop his deportation.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report