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Terrorist Says He Lied to Protect His Family

Testimony: At trial of an accused co-conspirator, Ahmed Ressam says he withheld information on accomplices in LAX plot.

July 07, 2001|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam testified Friday that fear for his family's safety in Algeria and a desire to protect his accomplices in a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport led him to lie to federal authorities.

Ressam, testifying under cross-examination in the trial of alleged co-conspirator Mokhtar Haouari, said he lied when he told authorities that the bomb plot involved him and only three other men.

Ressam said the truth is that he received terrorism advice and assistance from at least three veterans of the Islamic jihad, or holy war, and others in a loose-knit community of Algerian expatriates in Montreal.

"They assisted me," Ressam said during his third and final day of testimony in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. "Some a little, some a lot."

Ressam, who was convicted of terrorism April 6 in Los Angeles, is cooperating with authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Ressam's disclosures seemed to confirm what U.S. intelligence officials have long suspected: that the 34-year-old was part of an organized terrorism network with operational cells on three continents and ties to exiled Saudi militant Osama bin Laden.

Ressam admitted that he withheld names from federal authorities during several marathon debriefing sessions, despite his promise to tell all about his plot to bomb an LAX terminal just before New Year's Day 2000 and his role in the jihad.

Ressam testified that he feared retribution from at least six men whose names he later disclosed, and from others.

He protected the men, he said, because he didn't want them prosecuted and "because they knew where my family lived, where my relatives lived, and they might go after them and hurt them."

Ressam's parents and at least five brothers and sisters are believed to be living in Algeria, a war-torn North African country with a large network of anti-government terrorists who have links to his associates in Montreal.

Authorities have not commented on whether they are seeking to question any of the men named by Ressam. None has been charged in the case.

Prosecutors and Haouari's lawyer, Daniel J. Ollen, rested their cases late Friday. Closing statements are expected Wednesday, when the trial resumes.

Ollen suggested that Ressam is exaggerating his client's role in the conspiracy in hopes of reducing his own prison sentence.

Ressam denied that but did say he was told by authorities that he could serve as little as 27 years in prison by cooperating in the ongoing investigation. He had faced as much as 140 years in prison.

"You did that so you would not die in prison?" Ollen asked.

"Yes," Ressam replied. "That's correct."

Haouari, 32, is accused of conspiring with Ressam in the LAX plot and giving him financial and logistical assistance. He faces as much as 85 years in prison if convicted on seven felony counts.

Ressam also said Friday that, while in Montreal, he was the contact for other Algerians seeking to go to the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, using his connections with Bin Laden lieutenants in that country and in Pakistan and London.

As he prepared to leave Montreal on his bombing mission in December 1999, he testified, he turned that authority over to Haouari in a joint phone call with an Algerian confederate in London named Abu Doha.

Ollen scoffed at the testimony, saying Ressam admitted that he had other associates in Montreal that he knew far better than Haouari and who had much more experience and training.

Besides, Ollen asked, how could such an important transfer of power be handled by a simple phone call?

"Just like that, Mokhtar Haouari becomes the point man in Canada for anyone who wants to go to the camps in Afghanistan?" Ollen asked.

"Yes," Ressam replied. "I had trust in him."

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