Algerian gets 22 years in airport bomb plot

Man planned to blow up L.A. facility during millennium celebrations

July 28, 2005|By Tomas Alex Tizon and Lynn Marshall | Tomas Alex Tizon and Lynn Marshall,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEATTLE - The Algerian man who plotted to blow up Los Angeles International Airport at the height of millennium celebrations five years ago was sentenced to 22 years in prison yesterday.

Ahmed Ressam, 38, flashed a brief grin as he was sentenced to the midrange of what attorneys had requested. Defense lawyers had asked for 12 1/2 years; prosecutors wanted 35 years. He will get credit for the five years he has spent in custody.

Ressam, who had for a period cooperated with authorities in tracking down other terrorists, said nothing in court, but federal public defender Thomas Hillier said his client had given U.S. District Judge John Coughenour a note before the sentencing. The note, according to Hillier, said, "I am sorry for what I did. I know it was wrong, and I no longer believe in acts of violence."

Both sides had mixed reactions to the sentence.

"We're disappointed that the court didn't accept our recommendation of 35 years," said U.S. Attorney John McKay. "But it is a lengthy sentence, a significant sentence, against a man who came here to kill many people. What he wanted to do was kill innocent children, women and men, and kill as many as he could.

`Important message'

"The court sent an important message to would-be terrorists," McKay said.

Hillier, the public defender, called it "a long sentence," but said it was significant that the court had decided on a sentence of less than 25 years. "It reflects that this man cooperated under life-threatening circumstances."

With time already served and good behavior, Ressam could be out in as few as 14 years.

Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., in December 1999 after a U.S. Customs officer became suspicious as Ressam drove a rented Chevrolet off a ferry from British Columbia. Officers found enough explosive material in the trunk of his vehicle to take down a small building and potentially kill hundreds of people.

Ressam had been living in Montreal and was traveling on a forged Canadian passport. He confessed to being an al-Qaida operative.

Tracking down others

Court documents say Ressam at first refused to cooperate with the FBI. But after his April 2001 conviction on terrorist conspiracy and explosives charges, he suffered an emotional breakdown and had a change of heart.

He confessed that his target was not Seattle's Space Needle, as was widely speculated at the time of his arrest. His intended target was a Los Angeles International Airport terminal teeming with holiday travelers. He and his associates saw the airport as an American symbol of commerce.

Ressam began disclosing information on his former associates - an Algerian terrorist group and the broader umbrella organization al-Qaida.

Court documents show that Ressam provided information on more than 100 suspected terrorists, helped shut down clandestine al-Qaida cells and exposed organizational secrets of the global terrorist network.

His cooperation helped convict Mokhtar Haouari, 33, on charges that he provided logistical support in the plot to bomb Los Angeles International. Haouari, who is also Algerian, was sentenced in 2002 in New York to 24 years in prison.

Renewed silence

But prosecutors said that when Ressam learned that his own sentence would not be reduced as much as he hoped, he stopped cooperating.

Authorities said he stopped providing information sometime in early 2003.

One consequence of Ressam's renewed silence is that two of his suspected co-conspirators - Abu Doha, who is being held in Britain, and Samir Ait Mohamed, held in Canada - probably will escape prosecution in the United States, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle.

Ressam's defense team said their client stopped cooperating because he was being mistreated and bullied while in custody, and because he had "lost all hope" that he would be treated fairly by the U.S. court system.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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