Terror Talk

Ahmed Ressam grows weary of informing.

More Than Three years after Ahmed Ressam prepared unsuccessfully to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, the remains of his bomb have gone offdestroyed last month by FBI scientists who worried the terrorist's bomb makings might blow up in their D.C. lab. An FBI explosives expert says two dangerous powdery components of a bomb Ressam was taking to L.A. when he was arrested in Port Angeles in December 1999 had deteriorated"smelling like rotting fish" and becoming unsafeand had to be "destructed." Not that Ressam minded. The evidence was no longer needed since Ressam, locked up in the federal detention center in SeaTac, was convicted of terrorism conspiracy in 2001 and has since admitted his intentions to sabotage LAX. Today's he's one of the government's star witnesses and informants in the war against terrorism and has signed a sentencing deal that, it turns out, may be even better than the government advertised. Though Ressam faced up to 130 years for his crimes, when he is finally sentencedpossibly not until next year or even 2005he could serve just seven years or less in federal prison.

Prosecutors agreed to seek a 27-year minimum term, no cakewalk. But the statutory mandatory minimum in this case is 10 years, if a judge so chooses. "Right now, it is impossible to tell what Ressam's sentence will be, or when he will actually be sentenced," assistant U.S. attorney Andrew Hamilton said last week. But, says Michael Filipovic, one of Ressam's federal public defenders, "it's legally possible" that his client could get the lower minimum. Should a judge opt for the 10, combined with Ressam's credit for time served at the detention center since 1999 and the 54 days a year in "good time" that can be earned in federal custody, he could be a free man by 2010. That seems a good possibility. As assistant U.S. attorney Jerry Diskin said during a recent court hearing in Seattle, Ressam is "going to be in [prison] for another seven years, under the best of circumstances, after this court determines an appropriate sentence." Thus the terror-camp trainee whose arrest shook up the nation and caused cancellation of Seattle's millennium New Year's at the Space Needle may have talked 120 years off his sentence, helping to convict several other terrorists and providing prime intelligence on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorists.

And he is still talking, although somewhat grudgingly. Having helped in four terror indictments, he has told the government all he knows, says another of his attorneys, public defender Tom Hillier. Yet he is supposed to offer evidence in at least five more cases. Held under hard lockdown, Ressam has grown uncooperative, the government claims. "Please ask the judge to move forward," he told Hillier in February, hoping the court would finally sentence him. Last month, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour turned down that request, putting off sentencing for the third time so prosecutors could continue leveraging information from Ressam. Two of the cases for which Ressam is supposed to provide evidence are related to the 9/11 terror attacks and probably won't be heard until next yearthey will take place in New York. Any new terrorist arrests or discoveries could have Ressam providing information for several more years without being sentenced, but Ressam says he's spent.

Silence, though, could be a deal breaker for Ressam, 35. Diskin says that if his key source clammed up now, he could get the full 130 years. Ressam could appeal such a sentence, arguing he kept his promise as he saw it.

Prosecutors salute Ressam's efforts, as does Coughenour, who will pass sentence. The terrorist-cum-informant's "startlingly helpful information," the judge says, was given "probably at great personal risk on his part." Hillier says Ressam is grateful but weary: "He's a person who's a very devout Muslim. And it's just been difficult on him." For now, at least, Ressam will continue to talk away the years.


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