The Department of Justice won't appeal the 37-year prison sentence given to would-be "millennium bomber" Ahmed Ressam

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The Department of Justice announced Wednesday it will not appeal the 37-year sentence handed down to would-be “millennium bomber” Ahmed Ressam, ending more than a decade of legal wrangling over how long the al-Qaida-trained Algerian should be imprisoned for the plot to detonate a suitcase bomb at the Los Angeles International Airport.

During Ressam’s third sentencing last month in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Justice Department prosecutors had asked Judge John Coughenour to sentence Ressam to life, arguing that he remained a threat to national security and that he had reneged on his agreement to cooperate in the prosecutions of two other suspected terrorists who had helped him.

Coughenour had twice before imposed a 22-year sentence on Ressam, citing Ressam’s significant cooperation with the government after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which came three months after Ressam’s conviction by a Los Angeles jury.

Coughenour has also cited the government’s harsh treatment of Ressam as a reason for leniency.

Both times, the government appealed the sentence as too lenient and both times the sentence was overturned and sent back to Coughenour.

“The United States argued and believes that Mr. Ressam’s actions and his continued threat to public safety merited a sentence that would keep him incarcerated for life,” U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday. “While the Court decided otherwise, this 37-year sentence guarantees that he will remain in prison until he is 60 years old” and faces possible deportation after that to Algeria, where more prison time could await.

Federal Public Defender Thomas Hillier said the decision effectively ends the prosecution of Ressam, which began just days after he was arrested on Dec. 14, 1999, coming off a ferry from Victoria, B.C., in Port Angeles. Inspectors found electronic timers, powders and liquids in the trunk that turned out to be the makings of a powerful bomb.

Islamic-cell recruit

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 Los Angeles International Airport, where he planned to detonate a bomb during the holidays.

Hillier said Ressam has consistently apologized and taken responsibility for his crimes and has rejected violence.

The government, he said, “has continued to jack-up these phantom fears” by unfairly portraying Ressam as a unapologetic terrorist who continues to pose a threat to the U.S.

“Ressam is very sorry he did this,” Hillier said. “It seems like the only people who understand and know this is the defense and the judge.”

Hillier said the end of the case has proved “bittersweet.”

“I am disappointed in the length of the sentence Mr. Ressam will serve,” he said.

After he was convicted by a federal jury on nine terrorism and bomb-related charges in April 2001, Ressam became a crucial source of information about al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks. But his isolation in prison and repeated interrogations eventually soured him.

He stopped talking and eventually recanted his earlier statements, including information that had led federal prosecutors to indict a man believed to be al-Qaida’s chief recruiter in Western Europe and another who had said he wanted to detonate a fuel truck in a Jewish neighborhood in Montreal.

Those prosecutors were dropped when Ressam quit talking, the government said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.