LAX Bomb Plotter Sentenced to 22 Years

Algerian national Ahmed Ressam, arrested at the U.S./Canadian border in December 1999 and charged with plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium, was sentenced Wednesday to 22 years in prison. The judge in the case offered pointed remarks about U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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A convicted terrorist who planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium has been sentenced to 22 years in prison. Ahmed Ressam's sentence was far less than what prosecutors had asked for but more than the defense thought was warranted, because he had cooperated with government investigators, providing them with information about other terrorists. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

The story of Ahmed Ressam is a tangled one. In December of 1999, he took a ferry from British Columbia, Canada, to Port Angeles, Washington. His trunk was filled with bomb-making material. His intended target: the baggage claim area of the Los Angeles airport. He was arrested and charged with terrorism and related offenses. Prior to trial, the government offered a deal: Plead guilty and you'll get 25 years in prison. The Algerian Muslim turned the deal down. Ressam, then in his mid-30s, was convicted. Tom Hillier, Ressam's chief defense lawyer, says during the trial his client came to see his actions for the folly that they were.

Mr. TOM HILLIER (Ressam's Lawyer): You know, it unnerved him. It's not who he really is. And he decided he had to atone for that.

KAUFMAN: Whether he was atoning or, as prosecutors have suggested, he was trying to save himself from a lifetime in prison, Ressam decided to help the government and began to talk. He spent hundreds of hours with anti-terrorism investigators from the US, Canada and Europe providing, among other things, information about al-Qaeda, its activists and its methods. But as US attorney John McKay noted, in April 2003, Ressam stopped talking.

Mr. JOHN McKAY (US Attorney): That's the key fact, and what else he knew may not ever be communicated to us.

KAUFMAN: At a sentencing hearing three months ago, prosecutors told the judge that a sentence of 35 years would be appropriate, and, they said, Ressam's refusal to assist them further would likely mean the end of two terrorist cases pending in the US. The judge took the unusual step of speaking directly to Ressam, telling him that the court would look favorably upon his renewed cooperation. And the judge delayed sentencing until yesterday. But by then, it was clear Ressam wasn't about to say anything more. Judge John Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years. Defense lawyer Tom Hillier.

Mr. HILLIER: I think it's a very long sentence, and obviously, I was hoping for something shorter. But I think it was hugely important that the sentence be below 25 years, which is what it would have been if he had simply pled guilty.

KAUFMAN: As for his reaction, prosecutor McKay said he wished the sentence was stiffer but was pleased nonetheless.

Mr. McKAY: The court sent an important message to would-be terrorists around the world, and that is that in the United States a fair trial will be given, a fair opportunity to be heard and, where it is found that terrorism was committed, a lengthy prison sentence will be imposed.

KAUFMAN: Law professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles says the judge split the baby.

Ms. LAURIE LEVENSON (Professor, Loyola Law School): He knew that he wanted to send a message that if you cooperate you're going to get a better deal, but if you don't cooperate fully you're not going to get everything you want.

KAUFMAN: Judge Coughenour had the last word yesterday. He said the trial had shown that the courts work in terrorism cases. And he implicitly blasted some of the administration's anti-terrorism policies, saying, quote, "We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, detain the defendant indefinitely or deny the defendant the right to counsel. Our courts have not abandoned the commitment to the ideals that set this nation apart."

Ahmed Ressam will get credit for time served. And if he gets time off for good behavior, his prison sentence could be completed in about 14 years.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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