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LAX Bombing Plot Figure Is Convicted

July 14, 2001|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A Montreal shopkeeper was convicted Friday of conspiracy in a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport shortly before New Year's Day 2000.

Mokhtar Haouari, 32, betrayed no emotion as the jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan declared him guilty of conspiracy to provide "material support to a terrorist act" and four fraud charges.

Haouari was the third man to be convicted of playing a role in an Islamic extremist plot to bomb LAX just before the millennium celebrations as part of a jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

He provided assistance to fellow Algerian Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted in April in Los Angeles, as Ressam was preparing to sneak a car full of explosives from Canada into the United States.

Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the case showed the government's resolve in fighting terrorism by bringing to justice "every level of participant," even those in support roles such as Haouari.

"It takes many participants and many forms of assistance for a terrorist plot to succeed," White said in a statement. "This guilty verdict should make crystal clear that the full measure of the law will be brought to bear on anyone who provides support or assistance to a terrorist act."

Haouari was acquitted of taking the additional step of providing materials for a terrorist act. Even so, Haouari was "devastated" by his conviction, said his defense lawyer, Daniel Ollen.

"He thought it would be a clean sweep" for acquittal on the two terrorism counts, according to Ollen, who said he plans to appeal. "It sounds like it's a partial victory, but it's not. He's going away for a long time."

Haouari faces as many as 50 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 17.

During the three-week trial, Ressam, the government's star witness, implicated Haouari in the plot.

Ressam, 34, said Haouari knew that Ressam intended to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States when Haouari provided him with $3,000, a fake Canadian driver's license and the aid of a third man as Ressam planned a trip to the United States in December 1999.

Ressam's testimony also provided jurors a rare insider account of life in the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan that U.S. intelligence officials say are overseen by Saudi militant Osama bin Laden. He told jurors about at least eight other trained jihad fighters involved in the plot who have never been charged and of efforts by Islamic militant leaders to train and send other guerrillas into the United States.

Ressam and another conspirator, Abdelghani Meskini, were crucial to the government's case. But several jurors said in interviews Friday that they were skeptical of the two men because they were testifying as a way of reducing their own prison terms.

Several jurors said they couldn't determine whether Haouari really knew about Ressam's intentions to detonate a suitcase bomb at a crowded airport terminal. A finding of such intent was required for a conviction on all counts. Some believed he was simply helping a friend, or even a man intent on committing some form of terrorism, which was enough to convict Haouari on the conspiracy charge.

"They did not convince us that he had specific knowledge of what was going on," said juror Charles Robinson.

Haouari never took the stand in his defense but acknowledged to federal authorities that he provided Ressam with the money and the license, and that he engaged in credit card and bank fraud. He also admitted that he recruited Meskini to travel from New York to Seattle to help Ressam, but denied knowing about a terrorist plot.

Haouari was arrested a month after Ressam was caught at the U.S.-Canada border Dec. 14, 1999, with a car trunk full of explosives materials and four home-made timing devices.

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