In a precedent-setting case, a Falls Church man was sentenced to 10 years in prison yesterday for lying to authorities about his participation in a militant training camp in Pakistan after prosecutors successfully argued that his lies obstructed a wide-ranging terrorism investigation.
Under normal sentencing guidelines, Sabri Benkahla, 32, would have received at most a three-year term for his convictions earlier this year on charges of lying to a grand jury, obstruction of justice and making a false statement.
But federal prosecutors were able to obtain a stiffer sentence by arguing that Benkahla's lies effectively promoted terrorism.
Prosecutor Gordon Kromberg argued that Benkahla stymied an FBI investigation when he refused to tell a grand jury about his contacts on a 1999 trip to a training camp run by a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the U.S. has since designated a terrorist organization and Mr. Kromberg said has links to al Qaeda.
"The information Mr. Benkahla has in his head is far more important than the sentence he will receive," Mr. Kromberg said.
Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors were bitter because Benkahla had been acquitted on charges of giving aid to the Taliban, and they were setting a perjury trap by hauling him in front of the grand jury in 2004. They said investigators had no real hope of learning anything new from Benkahla.
"They still felt they had to get Mr. Benkahla in some way, and this was the way to do it," attorney John Keats said.
Mr. Kromberg countered that the FBI had a keen interest in learning more about those who attended Lashkar camps, because they have served as breeding grounds for al Qaeda operatives.
U.S. District Judge James Cacheris said his decision about whether to apply what's called a "terrorism enhancement" to Benkahla's sentence was one of his most difficult decisions since the federal sentencing guidelines were established in 1987. The attorneys and Judge Cacheris agreed there was no precedent for applying the guidelines in the manner sought by prosecutors.
Judge Cacheris could have sentenced Benkahla to as much as 22 years after applying the terror enhancement, but he cut the sentence to 10 years after giving Benkahla credit for lack of a criminal history and other factors.
Benkahla's case is one of about a dozen linked to what prosecutors called a "Virginia jihad network" of young U.S. Muslim men who played paintball as a means of training for holy war and who worshipped at the now-defunct Dar al-Arqam Mosque in Falls Church. The group's spiritual leader, Ali al-Timimi, is serving a life sentence for soliciting treason by urging followers after the September 11 attacks to go to Afghanistan and take up arms alongside the Taliban.
Benkahla had been one of only two persons who had been acquitted in those cases.
Benkahla's attorneys argued that prosecutors unfairly linked him to the paintball group; he had played paintball only once and was studying in Saudi Arabia when the group was most active.
Benkahla, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Fairfax County, told the judge that "I'm shocked at what has happened and feel betrayed" by the rulings that led to such a stiff sentence. He said he had been studying overseas "because I wanted to help bridge the gap between the East and West."
The courtroom was packed with Benkahla's family, friends and supporters. Judge Cacheris said he received more letters in support of Benkahla than he had in any other case, including a character reference from U.S. Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat who has close ties with Northern Virginia's Muslim community.
Many in the gallery broke down in tears when marshals took Benkahla into custody after the hearing. His mother was led out of the courtroom wailing, "I want to go to jail with him." His father shouted, "I want to kiss my son" as marshals denied the request and led Benkahla out of the Alexandria courtroom.
Mr. Keats said he plans to appeal the conviction and the sentence.