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.
Among the seven judges who voted to overturn the sentence, three said in a concurring opinion that the case was not that of a typical crime and they were hesitant about whether it provided any precedent for ruling whether a sentence was unreasonable.
"Acts of war are indeed different from ordinary crimes, and our current war with terrorism is indeed different from ordinary wars," said the opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, one of the court's most liberal justices. "I am far from certain that our government or our citizens have yet determined how to deal with these differences."
Dissenting judges argued that the court majority was treating terrorism differently from other crimes and was not basing its decision on the legal merits. They argued that the sentence was reached properly and should stand.
"Even if we have to grit our teeth to do so, we should let it be," said the opinion written by Judge Mary M. Schroeder.
"In our everyday lives, we often say that we should all practice what we preach. As an appellate court, we are bound by law either to practice what we have preached, or to repudiate it. The majority does neither," Judge Schroeder wrote.
According to court records, Ressam provided information for two years to the governments of the United States and six other countries and provided the names of at least 150 people involved in terrorism. He testified against a millennium plot co-conspirator, identified 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui as someone he had met at a terrorist training camp, and helped with the probe into so-called "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.
He stopped cooperating with authorities in 2003 and recanted some of his testimony and information, prompting the government to dismiss charges against two alleged terrorists.
The case took a tortuous legal turn and at one point went to the U.S. Supreme Court after Ressam's conviction on one of nine charges was overturned on appeal. The high court reinstated the conviction and ordered resentencing.
Prosecutors argued for life in prison during a 2008 hearing during which Ressam told the judge: "Sentence me to life in prison or anything you wish. I will have no objection to your sentence."
But for a second time, Judge Coughenour sentenced him to 22 years in prison.