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‘Secret’ terrorist gets life in embassy plot

He pleaded guilty more than five years ago to plotting bomb attacks on American embassies, but the case against al-Qaida member Mohammed Mansour Jabarah has been shrouded in secrecy until now.
Image: artist's sketch of Mohammed Mansour Jabarah
Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, second from right, a Canadian terrorist who briefly became an informant against top al-Qaida leaders is sentenced to life in prison Friday for plotting to blow up American embassies in Singapore and the Philippines.Andrea Shepard / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A Canadian who secretly pleaded guilty years ago and briefly became an informant against al-Qaida leaders was sentenced Friday to life in prison for plotting to blow up American embassies in Singapore and the Philippines.

A federal judge in Manhattan imposed the sentence after listening to a convoluted 20-minute speech from Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, in which he asked to be allowed to go home to his family and blamed his past on brainwashing.

"I am not a ruthless, infamous and notorious terrorist," said Jabarah, who was 19 when he was captured in Oman after the bombing plot collapsed. "I do not believe in terrorism, violence and killing."

U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones said she gave Jabarah credit for repudiating violence, but said she couldn't overlook what he had done.

"Actions speak louder than words," she said.

Once an anti-terrorism resource
Jabarah has been in U.S. custody since 2002, when he was turned over to the FBI by Canada's intelligence service and secretly pleaded guilty to terrorism charges as part of a short-lived plea bargain.

For a time, he was a valuable resource in the hunt for al-Qaida leaders.

During the few months of his cooperation with the FBI, Jabarah gave investigators information about Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described his personal meetings with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and detailed his interactions with several other al-Qaida lieutenants.

He also described his own involvement in a terrorist plot. After graduating from high school in Canada, where he had lived since a move from Kuwait at age 12, Jabarah slipped into Afghanistan and trained at al-Qaida camps in 2001. Prosecutors said he became a protege of Mohammed and was preparing for his first major operation — bomb attacks on American and Israeli embassies in Manila and Singapore — when the scheme was foiled by a round of arrests.

"This is far from a half-baked plot," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Rodgers, noting that tons of explosives had already been purchased and a suicide bomber selected.

"Mr. Jabarah is the real deal," Rodgers said.

The choice to switch sides
After his capture by Oman's intelligence service, Jabarah was brought to Canada where he was interrogated and told he had two choices: Go to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, or switch sides and inform on his terrorist mentors.

Jabarah chose the latter, and by July 2002 he had pleaded guilty in a closed court session and moved into a series of FBI safe houses in the United States.

His work as an informant, however, ended after just a few months, when FBI agents searching his quarters discovered jihadist writings, a knife and rope hidden in his luggage and instructions on how to make explosives. They also found a list bearing the initials of U.S. agents and prosecutors; authorities contend he intended to kill those people.

Jabarah was immediately transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where he lived in solitary confinement for four years.

In court Friday, his lawyer, Kenneth Paul, told the judge it was all a misunderstanding. The knife, he said, was for personal protection because of death threats received by his family. The extremist writings were notes taken on terrorist videos that he had been asked to watch as part of the investigation.

"It's just ridiculous," Paul said of the allegation that Jabarah was compiling a death list. He didn't comment in detail on the other writings in which his client appeared to express disgust with America and muse on how he might return to terrorism if he were ever freed.

An attempt to re-enlist Jabarah as an informant failed in 2006.

Both sides agreed that, by then, he had soured on American law enforcement and was unwilling to cut a new deal.

"He could have been a great cooperating witness," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin lamented during the hearing Friday. He said Jabarah knew enough to build indictments against several terrorist leaders, but instead chose to remain loyal to bin Laden. "He was not interested in saving lives."

Sitting before the judge, Jabarah said he had been brainwashed by people he thought were liberators of an oppressed people. "They were nothing more than terrorists," he said, and he deplored their killings as "absolutely disgusting, sickening and perverted."

Jones told Jabarah she would have found his statements more compelling if he had agreed to resume his cooperation with the government.

She said that regardless of his words now, Jabarah engaged in the "most serious criminal conduct" and that the decisions he made as a young man resulted in "a waste of a life that could otherwise have been very productive."