ON DECEMBER 14, 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, a border guard at the Port Angeles ferry dock noticed that a lean young man driving off the boat from Victoria was sweating. Thinking he was nervous, she told him to pull over.
While she queried the perspiring passenger, another guard pried open the spare tire cover in the car’s trunk. Inside was what looked like a drug bonanza—two olive jars of syrupy brown liquid, pill bottles, and plastic bags holding a hundred pounds of white powder—plus four curious circuit-board contraptions. When they touched this booty, its owner broke loose, sprinted off, and hid under a parked pickup.
Flushed out at gunpoint, he fled again, bounced off one passing car, and tried to hijack another. This time the officers locked him in a police cruiser. When they removed the jars from his car’s wheel well, he panicked again and huddled behind the cruiser’s door.
The authorities were stumped. Their mysterious stranger’s passport said he was Benni Noris, born in Montreal; he seemed to speak only French. The FBI agent dispatched to the scene called someone who might at least be able to read the suspect his Miranda rights in French: a third-year special agent back in Seattle named Fred Humphries. As a near-rookie who’d only assisted on other investigations, Humphries could never have expected to handle a major international terrorism case. But he’d learned French as a high school student in Ontario. Benni Noris’s accent didn’t sound Quebecois to Humphries; it reminded him of an Algerian-born language instructor he’d studied under while serving in the U.S. Army.
Humphries and his colleagues soon determined that Benni Noris was actually Ahmed Ressam, born 32 years earlier in Bou Ismail, Algeria. The contraband in his car was not drugs but explosives: ethylene glycol dinitrate, similar to nitroglycerin, in the jars, detonator explosives in the pill bottles, fertilizer in the bags, and circuit-board timers.
Ressam had learned to assemble these in 1998, when he attended a special training camp for Algerian jihadists in Afghanistan, then a sort of grad-school camp dedicated to explosives. He and four other trainees were assigned to return to Canada and plan attacks against the United States, but only he got back in. In Montreal, he enlisted two buddies—young Algerians who, like him, talked jihad and survived by stealing—in the scheme that brought him to the Port Angeles ferry dock.
He had scribbled down the address of the Loyal Inn, a motel a few blocks south of the Space Needle—where hundreds of thousands were to gather two weeks later for Seattle’s millennium eve celebration. An accomplice had flown out and waited to meet him there, then returned to New York. That was enough for Seattle’s Mayor Paul Schell: He cancelled the party.
Ten years later, Ahmed Ressam, now middle-aged, is still on trial. His role in what would soon come to be called the War on Terror has changed, and changed again. Ressam’s case has gone twice before the U.S. Court of Appeals and once to the Supreme Court, and it may well bounce back to both of them in the coming months or years. The full weight of the government’s legal might has been deployed to ensure that he spends all or nearly all of his remaining years in prison.
What’s at issue is not Ressam’s guilt or innocence, but merely what punishment he should receive.
In March 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Ressam with nine criminal counts for acts that included using a false name and ID, making false statements, possessing and transporting explosives “in the commission of a felony,” and, the stinger, “committing an act of terrorism transcending a national boundary.”
The prosecutors claim their case was shaky on the terrorism charge; that law was new and untested, and they didn’t know if they could prove intent—maybe Ressam was just a mule ferrying explosives for someone else. So they offered a plea bargain: a 25-year sentence, no conditions attached, well below the 65 to 130 years allowed under sentencing guidelines. They didn’t offer less time if he would cooperate and spill the beans, because they didn’t think he had much to spill. “He was just a street punk,” says then–U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer, who oversaw the prosecution.
Tom Hillier was the chief federal public defender in Seattle then and still is today; he has the square jaw and gravelly drawl of an on-screen crusading lawyer. He didn’t think the prosecution’s case was shaky: “I told him he should take [the deal].” But Ressam refused “He’d had a vision, a dream telling him he should go through with the trial.”