A federal appeals court in San Francisco today overturned a 22-year sentence for a man known as the “Millennium Bomber,” saying that the penalty for his plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport was too light.
A divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by a 7-4 vote ordered a resentencing in federal court in Seattle for Ahmed Ressam, 44, an Algerian citizen and Canadian resident who orchestrated an unsuccessful scheme to bomb the airport on New Year’s Eve in 1999.
Circuit Judge Richard Clifton wrote in the majority opinion that the 22-year sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge John Coughenor didn’t adequately account for the “horrific” crimes Ressam planned.
“Had Ressam succeeded in his plot to blow up LAX, it would have resulted in many deaths and injuries, substantial property damage, and enormous disruption to the nation’s transportation system,” Clifton said.
Clifton added, “Had Ressam succeeded, ‘LAX’ may well have entered our vocabulary as a term analogous to ‘the Oklahoma City bombing’ or ‘9/11.'”
Clifton wrote, “His clear intent was to intimidate this nation and the world.”
Ressam was convicted by a jury in Coughenor’s court in April 2001 of nine terrorism and explosives charges, including conspiring to engage in international terrorism.
Ressam, who moved to Canada in 1994, trained in Islamic terrorist camps in Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999 and was part of a cell charged with bombing an airport or consulate in the United States.
After he was convicted, Ressam admitted he specifically planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve in 1999.
The plot was foiled when U.S. customs agents at the Canadian border discovered 118 pounds of explosives and other bomb-making materials hidden in his car as he entered the state of Washington on Dec. 14, 1999.
Following his conviction, Ressam cooperated with federal terrorism investigations for two years in exchange for a promise of a lenient sentence recommendation. But he stopped cooperating in 2003 and recanted some of the information he had given.
Federal sentencing guidelines, which are advisory, called for a penalty of 65 years to life in prison for the nine counts on which Ressam was convicted.
Coughenor meted out the 22-year term after balancing the nature of the crimes with the value of Ressam’s cooperation, other terrorist sentences and the solitary confinement conditions in which convicted terrorists are held.
The appeals court majority said, however, that Coughenor “overvalued Ressam’s cooperation and undervalued the impact of his later repudiation.”
Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder said in a dissent joined by three other judges that the trial judge had “scrupulously” weighed the various sentencing factors and acted within his discretion.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News