The would-be millennium bomber who crossed the border from Canada with a trunkload of explosive materials to blow up Los Angeles International Airport has instead blown holes in his former terrorist network, court documents and interviews show.
Since his conviction in 2001, Algerian expatriate Ahmed Ressam, 37, has provided information on more than 100 suspected terrorists, helped shut down clandestine Al Qaeda cells and exposed valuable organizational secrets of the global terrorist network.
Now, after years of delays, he faces sentencing scheduled for today.
In recent weeks, a dispute over the level of his continuing cooperation has produced stacks of court documents disclosing for the first time much of the thwarted terrorist’s contribution to investigators.
Ressam’s cooperation, his defense lawyers contend, has saved countless lives, including those of FBI agents who otherwise wouldn’t have known that a sneaker they had seized from would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid contained a virtually undetectable but powerful explosive device.
Interviews with investigators and counter-terrorism officials, as well as documents filed by federal prosecutors, confirm significant details entered in the court record by Ressam’s lawyers. Much of the defense argument about the value of information Ressam provided is undisputed by prosecutors in their briefs.
Defense lawyers offered more details than prosecutors in their campaign to win a reduced sentence for Ressam. In one memorandum, they suggest that before Ressam began cooperating in the summer of 2001, U.S. authorities incorrectly focused on Osama bin Laden as the sole mastermind of all Islamic terrorist operations against the U.S.
“It is our understanding that based on Mr. Ressam’s information, the intelligence-gathering community confirmed for the first time that the Afghanistan training camps did not operate under the sole authority of Osama bin Laden, but rather, involved a number of leaders and groups with similar objectives,” defense lawyers said in documents arguing that Ressam’s assistance warranted considerable leniency from the judge.
“This was important news to the intelligence community and was relayed to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” the lawyers said.
One U.S. counter-terrorism official familiar with the case confirmed that Ressam provided the FBI, CIA and other authorities with names and job descriptions of numerous terrorist leaders, who, like Bin Laden, were “emirs” who helped operate Afghan training camps to prepare their soldiers for jihadist missions in their homelands.
“That was one of the changes we had to look at,” the U.S. official said. “He separated out the myth that everyone was Al Qaeda. Everyone [in the U.S. government] wanted to say everything was Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, and Ressam told us it wasn’t like that, that it was different bunches of guys that wanted to go off and do their own [stuff].”
The U.S. official cited Abu Musab Zarqawi and London-based Abu Doha as examples of such leaders. But he said there were others, and that many of them remained at large and intent on attacking U.S. interests here and abroad.
While acknowledging the value of Ressam’s information, federal prosecutors complained that he stopped talking months ago. As a result, government lawyers told the court, they cannot proceed with high-profile terrorism prosecutions of Doha and a Canadian named Samir Ait Mohammed unless Ressam resumes his cooperation and court testimony.
“The United States currently finds itself in the extremely difficult position of trying to proceed with these critical prosecutions after the most significant evidence has evaporated,” wrote John McKay, U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington state, which includes Seattle.
“To dismiss the charges would be a significant blow to the United States’ efforts to fight the global war on terrorism.”
At today’s hearing, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour could side with prosecutors and sentence Ressam to at least 35 years in federal prison for his lead role in the plot to detonate a suitcase bomb at LAX in late December 1999 as worldwide millennium celebrations were getting underway.
Defense lawyers are pressing Coughenour for a sentence of no more than 12 years, in recognition of his extensive and valued cooperation in the counter-terrorism campaign.
In a February 2003 hearing, the veteran judge described evidence provided by Ressam as “rather startlingly helpful.” But Coughenour has since given no public indication of how he may rule.
The documents filed to influence Coughenour’s decision offer details about Ressam’s central role in the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign.
They also indicate that senior Bush administration law enforcement and intelligence officials remain convinced that Islamic terrorist organizations pose a grave threat to U.S. interests here and abroad despite four years of aggressive measures.
In an interview, Assistant U.S. Atty. Robin Baker said she could not comment on any aspect of the Ressam case given the pending sentencing hearing, and other prosecutors and defense lawyers also have declined to make statements.
For the last four years, authorities have shielded even the most routine details of Ressam’s cooperation agreement from public disclosure. It was signed several weeks after his conviction in Los Angeles on charges that could have brought 130 years in prison.
Ressam was arrested after a U.S. Customs officer became suspicious as Ressam drove a rented Chevrolet off a ferry from Canada to Port Angeles, Wash.
Authorities later concluded that the explosives hidden in the trunk were powerful enough to take down a small building or kill hundreds of airport travelers.
The court documents show that Ressam steadfastly refused to cooperate with the FBI in the months following his arrest.
Court records also reveal for the first time that Ressam suffered an emotional breakdown after his conviction.
It was sometime after that episode that he agreed to help the FBI go after his former associates -- an Algerian terrorist group and the broader umbrella organization known as Al Qaeda.
Ressam’s change of heart and agreement to cooperate came in part because of the patient efforts of FBI Special Agent Fred Humphries III, a counter-terrorism specialist in Seattle. He developed a rapport with the soft-spoken Algerian and ultimately gained his trust and respect, defense lawyers said in their court papers.
One of Ressam’s first admissions was that authorities had been wrong in speculating that he and his associates planned to blow up Seattle’s Space Needle. Their intended target, Ressam disclosed, was an LAX terminal teeming with holiday travelers. They wanted to strike at the heart of an American symbol of commerce.
Once Ressam began providing information, the FBI tapped his insider knowledge of Al Qaeda and its Afghan training camps where he spent about nine months learning to make explosives, as well as techniques of urban warfare.
Court files detail the physical and emotional demands of his cooperation.
On 72 different days, Ressam was trundled back and forth from his cell at the Federal Detention Center SeaTac in Washington state to special holding rooms where he was debriefed for hours at a stretch by FBI agents, prosecutors and other authorities.
Ressam started by naming specific terrorists in Al Qaeda and other groups, including some -- like recently convicted Zacarias Moussaoui -- whom he recognized from his stints at two training camps in Afghanistan.
One of those camps was supervised by Doha, who was in charge of sending Al Qaeda recruits to Afghanistan from Europe, Ressam said. The information was used by the Justice Department to indict Doha in the summer of 2001, the documents show.
Ressam told authorities how terrorist groups financed their activities, recruited and trained operatives, and maintained global networks of sleeper cells, his defense lawyers said in their court papers.
By midsummer 2001, Ressam began providing intelligence of a more general nature about how Al Qaeda was preparing an attack on U.S. soil, at a time when the CIA was insisting that all of its intelligence pointed to a strike somewhere overseas.
Ressam’s warnings didn’t say when or where such an attack or attacks would occur, according to court briefs, but they were credible enough -- and sufficiently alarming -- to be included in the now-infamous briefing paper given to President Bush five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.
It was Ressam’s information that supported the briefing paper’s title: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
After the suicide hijackings killed about 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, Ressam became the object of more intense interest to the FBI, CIA and foreign governments concerned about possible attacks.
In one sentencing memorandum, Assistant Public Defender Michael Filipovic said Ressam showed FBI agents an Al Qaeda technique for building a paper detonator for explosive devices to be used on commercial airplanes.
Months later, would-be bomber Reid was arrested on a December 2001 flight from Paris to Miami, and one of those agents identified such a device in Reid’s sneakers. Previous explosives tests had failed to detect it.
At least one agent, Filipovic wrote, “would likely have been severely injured or killed” without knowledge of the shoe’s potential danger.
Senior Justice Department officials in Washington and New York took a personal interest in Ressam, adding to the frequency and intensity of interrogations. Ressam began to buckle under the stress, his lawyers said.
They insist that Ressam remains ready to cooperate if asked, and that he stopped providing information after he began suffering “cognitive difficulties” brought on by solitary confinement and aggressive interrogation procedures by the FBI.
A psychiatric evaluation of Ressam done at the request of his lawyers remains under seal. Prosecutors have dismissed it as the biased conjecture of a paid witness.
Prosecutors described their 35-year sentencing recommendation as generous, particularly since Ressam had stopped cooperating.
“Ressam’s solemn and intended goal was to wreak destruction -- on lives, on structures, and on the nation,” prosecutors wrote in a memo to Coughenour. “His sentence should be an unfaltering response to that heinous goal.”
Without Ressam’s help, prosecutors told the judge, they will likely have to drop their criminal case against Doha, who is awaiting extradition from Britain on charges of masterminding the LAX plot.
In a second case, the Justice Department is seeking to have Samir Ait Mohammed extradited from Canada to face charges of conspiring with Ressam to carry out the attack.
Ressam has issued a personal plea of his own, asking Coughenour for leniency in light of cooperation.
“I regret my participation in these events, accept my responsibility for my actions and I am sorry for what I have done,” Ressam wrote.