SEATTLE — The would-be millennium bomber who crossed the border from Canada with a trunkload of explosive materials to blow up Los Angeles International Airport has instead blown holes in his former terrorist network, court documents and interviews show.
Since his conviction in 2001, Algerian expatriate Ahmed Ressam, 37, has provided information on more than 100 suspected terrorists, helped shut down clandestine Al Qaeda cells and exposed valuable organizational secrets of the global terrorist network.
Now, after years of delays, he faces sentencing scheduled for today.
In recent weeks, a dispute over the level of his continuing cooperation has produced stacks of court documents disclosing for the first time much of the thwarted terrorist's contribution to investigators.
Ressam's cooperation, his defense lawyers contend, has saved countless lives, including those of FBI agents who otherwise wouldn't have known that a sneaker they had seized from would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid contained a virtually undetectable but powerful explosive device.
Interviews with investigators and counter-terrorism officials, as well as documents filed by federal prosecutors, confirm significant details entered in the court record by Ressam's lawyers. Much of the defense argument about the value of information Ressam provided is undisputed by prosecutors in their briefs.
Defense lawyers offered more details than prosecutors in their campaign to win a reduced sentence for Ressam. In one memorandum, they suggest that before Ressam began cooperating in the summer of 2001, U.S. authorities incorrectly focused on Osama bin Laden as the sole mastermind of all Islamic terrorist operations against the U.S.
"It is our understanding that based on Mr. Ressam's information, the intelligence-gathering community confirmed for the first time that the Afghanistan training camps did not operate under the sole authority of Osama bin Laden, but rather, involved a number of leaders and groups with similar objectives," defense lawyers said in documents arguing that Ressam's assistance warranted considerable leniency from the judge.
"This was important news to the intelligence community and was relayed to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence," the lawyers said.
One U.S. counter-terrorism official familiar with the case confirmed that Ressam provided the FBI, CIA and other authorities with names and job descriptions of numerous terrorist leaders, who, like Bin Laden, were "emirs" who helped operate Afghan training camps to prepare their soldiers for jihadist missions in their homelands.
"That was one of the changes we had to look at," the U.S. official said. "He separated out the myth that everyone was Al Qaeda. Everyone [in the U.S. government] wanted to say everything was Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, and Ressam told us it wasn't like that, that it was different bunches of guys that wanted to go off and do their own [stuff]."
The U.S. official cited Abu Musab Zarqawi and London-based Abu Doha as examples of such leaders. But he said there were others, and that many of them remained at large and intent on attacking U.S. interests here and abroad.
While acknowledging the value of Ressam's information, federal prosecutors complained that he stopped talking months ago. As a result, government lawyers told the court, they cannot proceed with high-profile terrorism prosecutions of Doha and a Canadian named Samir Ait Mohammed unless Ressam resumes his cooperation and court testimony.
"The United States currently finds itself in the extremely difficult position of trying to proceed with these critical prosecutions after the most significant evidence has evaporated," wrote John McKay, U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington state, which includes Seattle.
"To dismiss the charges would be a significant blow to the United States' efforts to fight the global war on terrorism."
At today's hearing, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour could side with prosecutors and sentence Ressam to at least 35 years in federal prison for his lead role in the plot to detonate a suitcase bomb at LAX in late December 1999 as worldwide millennium celebrations were getting underway.
Defense lawyers are pressing Coughenour for a sentence of no more than 12 years, in recognition of his extensive and valued cooperation in the counter-terrorism campaign.
In a February 2003 hearing, the veteran judge described evidence provided by Ressam as "rather startlingly helpful." But Coughenour has since given no public indication of how he may rule.
The documents filed to influence Coughenour's decision offer details about Ressam's central role in the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign.
They also indicate that senior Bush administration law enforcement and intelligence officials remain convinced that Islamic terrorist organizations pose a grave threat to U.S. interests here and abroad despite four years of aggressive measures.