RESSAM
AP file
Ahmed Ressam is shown in an undated police handout photo.
updated 4/27/2005 2:30:20 PM ET 2005-04-27T18:30:20

A federal judge Wednesday postponed the sentencing for Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian intent on blowing up part of Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium, saying it was possible Ressam may further help the government in its anti-terrorism investigations.

After hearing 21/2 hours of arguments and testimony about Ressam's level of cooperation with federal investigators, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour decided to continue the hearing until July 28.

“It's inherent in the action of my request that there's reason for optimism that his cooperation will improve," Coughenour said. "The world will be in a better place if we set this over."

Prosecutors had sought 35 years behind bars for Ressam, 37, saying that he has stopped talking with investigators and thus jeopardized two related terrorism prosecutions. Ressam's attorneys, who recommended 121/2 years, had said he is willing to continue cooperating; he just doesn't remember as much about his alleged co-conspirators as he used to.

The Algerian national was caught in December 1999 smuggling explosives into the United States from Canada through Port Angeles, Wash. He was convicted in April 2001 of nine charges, including terrorist conspiracy. Facing up to 130 years in prison, he began to talk.

Helping the feds
Before the hearing, prosecutors acknowledged that Ressam has proved a remarkable resource in the nation’s efforts to understand and eradicate terrorists, having told investigators about the locations of terrorist cells and camps, who ran them and how they operated.

But prosecutors also said that Ressam could have done more.

According to  court documents filed by his lawyers, Ressam offered details about various terrorist operations.

He provided information on more than 100 potential terrorists and testified against co-conspirator Moktar Haouari and Sept. 11 plotter Mounir el-Motassadeq. Ressam told authorities he saw Zacarias Moussaoui at a training camp in Afghanistan in 1998; Moussaoui was later indicted in the Sept. 11 attacks and has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

Ressam’s testimony helped convict Haouari of supplying fake identification and cash for the millennium bomb plot. Haouari was sentenced in New York to 24 years in prison.

In December 2002, Ressam met with German justice officials who questioned him about al-Qaida for the trial of Motassadeq, a Moroccan charged with supporting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers. Motassadeq was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Ressam also first told investigators about the type of shoe-bomb Richard Reid attempted to use on a flight to the United States. And, his lawyers say, Ressam helped save lives by providing information about a network of Algerian terrorists operating in Europe.

His sentencing has been repeatedly delayed to ensure his cooperation in other cases.

Silence in ’03
But in 2003, Ressam stopped talking.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist for the defense, recommended in November 2003 that Ressam be moved from solitary confinement. Ressam was frustrated, Grassian said, by repeated interrogations. He was forced to repeat earlier testimony, nuances were lost in translation, and he felt pressured to confirm statements he did not believe he had ever made, Grassian said. Ressam was not moved until June 2004.

But federal prosecutor Mark Bartlett noted that prosecutors first offered to move Ressam from solitary in March 2002, and Ressam refused. Grassian said Ressam was afraid to make the move.

And Bartlett said in the months since Ressam was taken from solitary, his cooperation has not improved. Grassian, however, said Ressam testified before a grand jury in New York early this year.

Two pending cases
But prosecutors now say that without his continued help, they may have to drop terrorism charges against two other suspects in the bomb plot. Abu Doha and Samir Ait Mohamed are awaiting extradition to the United States — Doha in Britain, Mohamed in Canada.

In court papers, defense lawyers countered that the government does not have to drop the charges against Doha and Mohamed because it can introduce Ressam’s previous statements about them.

Ressam, one of seven children from a poor family in Algeria, bounced around North Africa and France before arriving in Canada with a fake French passport. He was not immediately deported, however, and began engaging in petty crime before falling in with a group of extremist Muslims. His new friends helped him travel to Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999, where he attended three terror camps before returning to Montreal, court documents said.

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