A 22-year sentence was unreasonably lenient for Al Qaeda-trained terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who drove a vehicle containing powerful explosives into the United States from Canada with the intent of bombing Los Angeles International Airport, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The 7-4 ruling by the full U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to a Seattle federal judge for resentencing with the recommendation that the Algerian-born prisoner be given a term more in line with federal sentencing guidelines that call for 65 years to life for the offenses for which Ressam was convicted.
Disputes over the appropriate punishment for Ressam have roiled the federal courts for more than a decade, as the young Algerian, who was intercepted as he entered Washington state on a ferry from Canada, initially cooperated with U.S. counterterrorism agents, exposing the inner workings of the global terror network and helping identify and convict other extremists.
But Ressam ceased cooperating with national security agents after two years, citing a fading memory and mental trauma from his harsh confinement at a federal detention facility in Seattle.
U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who oversaw Ressam’s 2001 trial and conviction on nine criminal charges, sentenced Ressam to 22 years in 2005, rejecting the government’s urging of at least a 35-year term. Coughenour said the need to balance the severity of Ressam’s planned attack and his contributions to the fight against terror was the most difficult decision he faced in 24 years on the federal bench. Ressam had identified 150 jihadists to U.S. intelligence agents and testified in two trials that resulted in convictions, the judge noted.
The government appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit struck down the sentence on procedural grounds in 2008. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 9th Circuit, sending the case back to Coughenour, who again imposed the 22-year term. A 9th Circuit panel vacated that sentence two years ago and ordered that a different judge decide how much time Ressam should serve.
That order was put on hold when the appeals court agreed to reconsider the case with a full 11-judge panel last year, leading to Monday’s ruling that 22 years was too light a sentence for the serious terrorism offenses for which Ressam was convicted.
The 11-judge panel said a more appropriate sentence would be in the range set by federal guidelines, suggesting that Ressam remain in prison for what may be the rest of his life. The four dissenting judges, all appointees of Democratic presidents, said the district court’s judgment should be respected.
Ressam would be 51 when released from prison if the 22-year sentence were left in place, the appeals court majority pointed out. The judges agreed with the government that national security could be in jeopardy if Ressam were freed at that relatively young age.
The militant was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., on Dec. 14, 1999, after his nervous demeanor aroused the suspicions of a U.S. customs agent as Ressam drove a rental car off of a ferry arriving from a remote port in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Investigators found powerful explosives hidden in the wheel well of the rental car “capable of producing a blast 40 times greater than that of a devastating car bomb,” court records show.
Ressam already had a long history of involvement with Islamic extremists when his plot to bomb LAX on the eve of the 2000 New Year was thwarted. He had been expelled from France and Morocco, and was subject to a Canadian arrest warrant in 1998 that he evaded because he was then training at Taliban and Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
The plot to bomb LAX was concocted among half a dozen trainees under the direction of three major Al Qaeda figures after jailed Islamic cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman exhorted followers to attack Americans anywhere in the world, the court said in its summary of the case.
While the three-judge 9th Circuit panel in 2010 ordered a different judge to handle the resentencing of Ressam, the full court’s ruling sent the task back to Coughenour “with confidence that the district court will take heed of this opinion.”