Sentence remanded in 1999 L.A. bomb plot

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LOS ANGELES — Calling it unreasonably lenient, a federal appeals court on Monday overturned a 22-year prison sentence for “millennium bomber” Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped with a carload of explosive materials before he could kill people at Los Angeles International Airport in 1999.

In a 7-4 split decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government’s appeal and sent the case back to a federal judge in Seattle for resentencing for a third time.

The court, which contains some of the nation’s most liberal judges, said that Ressam’s plot to blow up the airport on New Year’s Eve 1999, was “horrific” and intended to intimidate the nation and the world.

“Had Ressam succeeded, ‘LAX’ may well have entered our vocabulary as a term analogous to ‘the Oklahoma City bombing’ or ‘9/11,’ ” according to a majority decision written by Judge Richard R. Clifton.

Ressam, an Algerian national who had attended training camps for Islamic terrorists, was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, in Port Angeles, Wash.

He had a bogus Canadian passport, but his nervousness after arriving on a ferry from Canada prompted a search of his rental car. Authorities found more than 100 pounds of chemicals, along with timing devices and other equipment, to make a fertilizer-derived nitrate bomb.

In April 2001, Ressam was convicted of nine federal charges, including smuggling explosives and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Sentencing guidelines recommended 65 years to life in prison, but federal authorities offered lesser sentences if he would cooperate in other terrorist cases.

He cooperated for two years, but later recanted some testimony.

The federal judge who sentenced Ressam said he looked at several factors, balancing the harm Ressam planned with the good his cooperation had done in fighting terrorism. But the appeals court said U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle committed a “clear error of judgment.”

“We acknowledge that 22 years is not a trivial period of time,” but it is decades shorter than the recommended sentence from federal guidelines, said the judges in the majority opinion.

Ressam demonstrated strongly held beliefs and a willingness to attack American interests. If and when he is released, he could try again to blow up LAX or to launch some other attack,” according to the decision.

The case now returns to Seattle for resentencing.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed that we have to go through another sentencing,” said Tom Hillier, the federal public defender who argued the case before the appellate court in Seattle. “It’s been a long haul for Ahmed. But when it comes to terrorism cases, there are some fairly strong opinions on what should be” the sentence.

He said the judge will have to impose a sentence longer than 22 years, but the appellate court did not specify any specific length.

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