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Algerian convicted in millennium-eve plot to bomb L.A. airport awaits sentencing

| Wednesday, April 27, 2005

SEATTLE (AP) - Five years after being arrested with a trunkful of bomb-making materials at the U.S. border, Ahmed Ressam has proved a remarkable resource in the nation's efforts to understand and eradicate terrorists.

He told investigators from many countries about the locations of terror cells and camps, who ran them and how they operated.

But as Ressam, 37, awaits sentencing Wednesday, prosecutors say he could have done more.

Ressam, an Algerian convicted of plotting a millennium-eve bombing at the Los Angeles airport, stopped cooperating with prosecutors in 2003 when he realized the Justice Department would not recommend a sentence shorter than 27 years, they say.

Prosecutors now say that without his continued help, they may have to drop terrorism charges against two men: Abu Doha, who was accused of orchestrating the bomb plot, and Samir Ait Mohamed, also charged in the scheme. They are awaiting extradition to the United States -- Doha in Britain, Mohamed in Canada.

The government is seeking 35 years behind bars for Ressam. Ressam's public defenders are asking for 12 1/2 -- and say Ressam is willing to continue cooperating, but doesn't remember as much as he used to.

The government does not have to drop the charges against Doha and Mohamed because it can introduce Ressam's previous statements about them, the defense lawyers wrote in court papers.

A psychiatrist who evaluated Ressam for the defense blamed the government for his intransigence. Officials took months to get Ressam out of solitary confinement after his mental condition began to deteriorate, said Dr. Stuart Grassian.

"If these problems developed and hardened during a period of stringent confinement, the sooner we got him out of there the better," said Grassian, who taught for nearly three decades at Harvard University Medical School. "We wanted him to be away from that to allow his mental state to soften again."

Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles in December 1999 as he drove off a ferry from British Columbia. A customs worker noticed Ressam seemed nervous. Agents found explosives more powerful than TNT and digital watches that could be used as timers.

Ressam was convicted in April 2001 on explosives charges and conspiracy to commit terrorism. Facing up to 130 years in prison, he began to talk.

Over the next two years, in meetings with international investigators, Ressam offered details about various terrorist operations, according to court documents filed by his lawyers.

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.

Ressam 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.

But in 2003, Grassian said Ressam grew frustrated by repeated interrogations and stopped talking. Grassian recommended he be moved from solitary confinement in November 2003, but he said Ressam was not moved until June 2004. Prosecutors said he was moved two months before that.

Federal prosecutor Mark Bartlett said Ressam's cooperation has not improved since he was taken from solitary. But Grassian said Ressam testified before a grand jury in New York early this year. Bartlett declined to comment on that.

One filing made by prosecutors says as recently as Feb. 25, Ressam was asked to cooperate again to salvage the Doha and Mohamed cases.

"For the most part, Ressam answered that he did not know or did not recall the answers to the questions," federal prosecutors wrote. "The government believes that Ressam lied and that his answers reflect a refusal to continue cooperating."

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