On July 27, 2005, Ahmed Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in prison for attempting to detonate explosives at the Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the new millennium. Although Ressam intended to murder hundreds of innocent civilians under the auspices of a jihad against the United States, Judge John Coughenour broke from federal guidelines permitting a sentence of 65 years to life and instead issued the limited sentence of 22 years imprisonment.
While the initial sentence was predicated upon the belief that Ressam had provided cooperation and support to law enforcement upon his arrest, a recent appellate court decision found that justification to be in error.
Monday morning, a 7–4 ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Ressam’s original sentence and sent his case back for re-sentencing.
This week’s ruling vindicates those who believed that the “Millennium Bomber” not only deserved a much harsher sentence than his original 22 years, but also that the prospect of Ressam’s premature release would subject U.S. citizens to an unjustifiable threat.
Although it has been more than 10 years since Ressam’s attempted bombing of LAX, it is important to recall the events that led to his arrest.
According to the federal government’s sentencing memorandum filed prior to Ressam’s initial sentence of 22 years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office outlined the extent to which Ressam prepared for, and sought, the death of American civilians.
After being arrested in Corsica in 1993 on an immigration violation and facing the prospect of being deported to his native Algeria, Ressam fled to Canada. Although Canadian officials spotted his fake passport upon entering their country, Ressam gamed the system and “applied for political asylum based on a false claim of Algerian abuse and torture.”
According to federal documents, “Over the next several years Ressam lived in Montreal with other Algerian immigrants getting by on handouts from the Canadian government and money he made committing a variety of petty crimes.”
While in Montreal, Ressam became connected with an al-Qaeda recruiter named Abderraouf Hannachi. This relationship led Ressam to seek terrorism training in the al-Qaeda camps of Afghanistan.
In late 1998, Ressam traveled to Afghanistan and received extensive explosives training and instructions “to organize an attack against the United States to coincide with the new Millennium.”
What is particularly revealing—and what makes his impending re-sentencing appropriate—is the extent to which he sought to inflict significant physical and psychological damage on the United States based on the target of his choosing.
Federal documents outlined how “Ressam selected Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), in order to maximize the impact on the United States public: the airport was in a large urban center, he would likely inflict a large number of civilian casualties, and the attack would target a critical transportation system and thereby effect [sic] the United States economy.”
The sentencing memorandum further stated that “Ressam chose the date in December, 1999, in order to maximize the impact of the attack given the huge fears of the public about the pending millennium, fears ranging from computer breakdowns to the apocalypse.”
Following his initial sentence of 22 years, Ahmed Ressam ceased cooperation with U.S. authorities. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was correct in ordering his re-sentencing. To have allowed his release from prison just over a decade from now would have been to subject the American people to an unnecessary threat from an unrepentant terrorist.