Millennium Terrorist Now Detailing Plot, Sources Say
A Montreal man convicted last month for his role in a millennium terrorism plot has confessed that he intended to detonate a large bomb at Los Angeles International Airport and is cooperating in an ongoing federal investigation, law enforcement sources said Tuesday.
Ahmed Ressam, 33, who refused to tell authorities anything for 17 months after his arrest, admitted his terrorism plans in recent weeks, according to sources familiar with the case.
Sources did not say whether Ressam has discussed the details of an attack on LAX.
He was convicted April 6 on nine counts of conspiring to commit an act of international terrorism and related charges.
Ressam, an Algerian national, faces up to 140 years in prison when sentenced in federal court. He is expected to receive a lighter sentence in exchange for his continuing cooperation in the ongoing investigation of a Montreal-based group of Islamic extremists and that group’s alleged ties to suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, sources said.
Four Bin Laden operatives were convicted in New York on Tuesday of conspiring to blow up two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, killing 224.
Sentencing for Ressam is scheduled for June 28, but delays are now expected given Ressam’s cooperation.
Authorities, including the FBI and federal prosecutors, would not confirm Ressam’s admissions or his agreement to cooperate with them.
Ressam’s chief public defender, Thomas Hillier, said, “I’m not commenting on anything.”
Ressam’s sudden turnabout represents a dramatic breakthrough not only in the ongoing terrorism investigation, but in the upcoming prosecution in New York of one of his alleged co-conspirators, Mokhtar Haouari.
Haouari, also of Montreal, stands trial June 26 on charges of plotting to help Ressam and two other Algerian nationals “punish America” by blowing up unspecified U.S. targets on or about New Year’s Day 2000. Ressam is expected to be the government’s key witness against Haouari.
On Tuesday, Haouari lawyer Daniel Ollen said authorities have not told him that Ressam will be a witness.
Ollen added: “It’s one thing being a terrorist. It’s another to be a terrorist and a rat.”
Roland Thau, a New York public defender representing another alleged Ressam co-conspirator, said he was “surprised Ressam hadn’t started down that road [to cooperating with authorities] a long time ago.”
Thau represents Abdelghani Meskini, who testified against Ressam as part of his own plea agreement.
During Ressam’s trial in Los Angeles in March, Meskini testified that Haouari told him to travel from New York to Seattle to meet Ressam and provide him with logistical and financial support. Ressam was arrested before the two could meet, so Meskini had limited knowledge of the overall workings of the bomb plot, authorities have said.
But Ressam and Haouari are said to be associates, so Ressam’s agreement to testify against him “should be devastating to Haouari,” Thau said.
Ressam is also expected to provide authorities with an important missing piece of the bomb conspiracy puzzle, and the roles played by an alleged co-conspirator who has never been caught, Abdelmajid Dahoumane.
Until now, federal investigators had no idea what Ressam was planning when he was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, at a remote ferry landing in Port Angeles, Wash.
U.S. authorities, suspicious of Ressam’s nervous behavior, had stopped him as he drove his car off a ferry from Canada. They found about 130 pounds of explosives in the trunk of his rental car, along with four homemade timing devices. They later learned Ressam had reserved a motel room near Seattle’s Space Needle, the site of a planned millennium party.
At trial, defense lawyers said Ressam was an unwitting courier who either didn’t know what was in the trunk of his car or didn’t know its significance.
Prosecutors said Ressam clearly helped buy and assemble the bomb components. They said the explosives, including a rare military compound, were powerful enough to “easily take down a building.”
But they conceded that they never knew Ressam’s target, suggesting at his trial that he was considering attacking the Space Needle, the Transamerica tower in San Francisco, or possibly a Southern California airport.
A tour book of California was found in Ressam’s rental car, with his fingerprints on photographs of downtown Los Angeles and the Transamerica tower, prosecutors told the jury. And, Canadian authorities found a map of Southern California in Ressam’s Montreal apartment after his arrest, with circles around LAX, Long Beach and Ontario airports.
Prosecutors said that they didn’t know if those were targets.
Authorities are also interested in Ressam’s alleged links to other terrorists, including his knowledge of Bin Laden-financed military camps, which he attended in 1998.
Ressam is believed to be part of a global network of Islamic extremists that maintain ties to the exiled Saudi militant.