Would-be LAX bomber is resentenced to 22 years
Ahmed Ressam, the “millennium bomber” convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, was resentenced to 22 years in prison Wednesday after a federal judge found that solitary confinement and repeated interrogations had helped cause him to stop cooperating in other terrorism prosecutions.
U.S. District Judge John Coughenour rejected the government’s warning that Ressam, who in 1999 was stopped coming off a ferry from Canada with a carload of explosives, had reverted to Al Qaeda sympathies and would represent a danger if he were ever released.
Noting that the case comes “as our nation prepares for a new chapter,” Coughenour said Ressam had provided “an unprecedented view of the inner workings [of Al Qaeda] that almost without question prevented . . . future attacks.”
The substantial help that the Algerian provided to U.S. officials before his change of heart -- coupled with the relatively shorter sentences handed out in other terrorism cases -- merited no harsher a penalty than the 22-year sentence first imposed in 2005, the judge said.
That sentence effectively was vacated by a federal appeals court ruling on another issue in the case. So prosecutors were able to return to court Wednesday to argue that Coughenour’s original sentence was too lenient, given Ressam’s failure to live up to his cooperation agreement.
Government lawyers started out the day seeking a 45-year sentence. But as Ressam accused investigators of pressuring him through mental duress into providing unreliable information against Al Qaeda suspects, prosecutors upped the ante to demand life in prison.
Ressam, who was representing himself, did not object.
“Sentence me to life in prison, or anything you wish,” he told the judge. “I will have no objection to your sentence.”
The Ressam case represents a stunning reversal for federal prosecutors who once had relied on the 41-year-old militant for help in a variety of high-level terrorism cases -- some of which were halted in their tracks when he stopped talking in 2003.
Ressam has recanted his testimony in at least three cases, one involving his alleged accomplice in the Los Angeles bombing plot, Mokhtar Haouari. The Montreal shopkeeper was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2001 for conspiring to provide material support by giving Ressam money and a fake Canadian driver’s license.
On Wednesday, Ressam told the court he had been pressured into providing testimony in two other high-profile cases -- one involving Abu Doha, identified by U.S. authorities as one of Europe’s highest-ranking Al Qaeda figures, and Samir Ait Mohamed, who allegedly helped Ressam in the Los Angeles bombing conspiracy.
“The government attorney and the investigator . . . interpret[ed] some of my statements to suit their interest, and statements . . . were put in my mouth. I said yes because of the extreme mental exhaustion I was going through,” Ressam said Wednesday.
“I retract all the statements I made in the past and do not want my word counted in the trial. . . . I did not know what I was saying.”
Ressam’s retreat forced the U.S. to abandon prosecution of Abu Doha and Mohamed, despite the fact that Britain and Canada had held the men in custody at American officials’ request. British authorities shifted Abu Doha’s detention to house in July.
“Our government was put in a horrible situation,” said Mark Bartlett, first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle. “We had gone to two of our closest allies, Great Britain and Canada, and said . . . arrest these people, keep them in custody, and we promise we will bring them to the United States. . . . We will hold them accountable. And then we have to go back and say we are unable to try them.”
Ressam’s assertions about the Haouari case in court Wednesday can now be used by the shopkeeper’s lawyers to demand a new trial, Bartlett said.
“Ressam has provided no indication that he has repudiated the goals of terrorists to inflict harm on the United States. His decision to end cooperation raises the specter that he continues to pose a real and serious threat to the United States,” Bartlett wrote in his sentencing memorandum.
Jeffrey Sullivan, the U.S. attorney in Seattle, said after Wednesday’s court session that he would seek permission to appeal Ressam’s sentence. He argued that Ressam stopped cooperating not because of a mental breakdown, but because he was unhappy with the 22 years he originally had received.
“He told the court today in front of the judge, ‘I’m a terrorist, I’m trained as a terrorist, I’m going to do it again when I get out. . . . That’s what I heard him say,” Sullivan said. “He deserves to stay in jail until he dies.”
Tom Hillier, the federal public defender who represented Ressam at trial, said his client received much harsher treatment once he was transferred to New York to help with higher-profile terrorism cases.
“There were factors -- in the sense of lengthy, repetitive, demanding, unrelenting interrogations of somebody who’s helping, you know? And without a lot of concern for his frame of mind during all of that,” Hillier said.
“I think a part of the reason for that is that the interrogators came from different organizations, different countries, and so he didn’t have a government handler, somebody who was sort of taking care of him, as somebody should have been,” Hillier said.
“In fact, the folks in New York were somewhat distant from Ahmed, somewhat uncaring, which is not to be unexpected, given that they had recently suffered the trauma of 9/11.”
Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.