The Silence of Ressam

Seattle’s millennium bomber endured years of interrogations, spilled Al Qaeda’s secrets, then refused to say more. Ten years after he was captured, the nation’s courts are still struggling over what to do with Ahmed Ressam.

By Eric Scigliano April 16, 2010 Published in the May 2010 issue of Seattle Met

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.”

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Ressam’s trial, held in March 2001, was moved from Seattle to Los Angeles because of pretrial publicity and security fears. Prosecutors shuddered at facing an LA jury after the O. J. acquittal and Menendez mistrial. But they gave thanks that Judge John Coughenour, then the chief judge in the Seattle-Tacoma district, had snagged the case for himself. Coughenour—a commanding presence with a scowl that could turn wayward lawyers into pillars of salt—was widely considered tough, capable, and fair.

At trial, the prosecution’s case got stronger. The accomplice who was to meet Ressam in Seattle copped a plea—just six years—and testified against him. One of the prosecutors, Steven Gonzales, suggested pulling fingerprints from a notebook that had been found in Ressam’s former apartment, containing the phone numbers of two known al Qaeda operatives and the firms that sold the components in his explosives. Ressam’s prints were all over it. If terrorist intent wasn’t evident before, it was now.

After five weeks in court, Ahmed Ressam was convicted on all nine counts and sent back to the federal detention center in SeaTac—where he’d been held in a small, solitary cell since his arrest-—to await sentencing. Visibly shaken, he swayed and chanted quietly to himself. The jailers put him on suicide watch.

Criminal defendants rarely offer to cooperate after trial. Usually they deal beforehand, when they can exert the most leverage to reduce their sentences. But Ressam now announced he was ready to dish. For the next six weeks the defense and prosecution danced a precooperation minuet over terms. Humphries and federal prosecutors from Seattle and New York debriefed Ressam about 15 times to ascertain what he knew and what it was worth.

A lot, it seemed. Ressam offered an unprecedented window into al Qaeda’s training camps and recruiting networks. His defense attorney Hillier suggested a 10- to 15-year sentence in return. The federal prosecutor negotiating the deal said the government was thinking 20 to 25. All within bargaining range.

But then the Justice Department in Washington, DC—Attorney General John Ashcroft himself, according to news reports and Hillier’s courtroom declarations—intervened and soured the offer. Ressam had been scheduled to make his public debut in New York testifying against his friend and accomplice Mokhtar Haouari, who’d accompanied him to Vancouver and helped him prepare the explosives. But just before he left for New York, late in the afternoon of June 22, 2001, the prosecution faxed a letter laying out terms: It would request a sentence reduction if Ressam talked whenever, about whatever, and for as long as it wanted. But under no circumstances could it or the defense request less than 27 years.

Hillier was appalled that the government would demand a longer sentence with cooperation than it had offered without. But prosecutor Robin Baker, who represented the U.S. Attorney in New York in the case, says the offer was reasonable: “Whatever you offer before a trial, you would never expect the defendant to receive that afterward.” Regardless, it was a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Sign now, Hillier advised Ressam, and we’ll find a way to revisit the issue later. So Ressam signed and testified against Haouari. In the trial transcript he comes across as a stickler for accuracy, correcting even prosecutors’ characterizations of what he’d previously said.

After testifying, Ressam wept. Haouari was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 24 years.

Over the next two years, Ahmed Ressam was deposed and debriefed for hundreds of hours in Seattle and New York, for as long as five days at a time and seven hours a day. Investigators from Canada, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy joined in. The Germans set up court in Seattle so he could formally testify against an Algerian subsequently convicted of plotting to blow up Strasbourg’s Christmas Market.

Ressam detailed the operations of the training camps, right down to their gruesome use of live dogs to demonstrate the effects of poison gas. He named some 130 people he’d met in his journey through them, including several top figures. His revelations circulated widely in the FBI and other intelligence-starved law enforcement agencies. Vincent Cannistraro, the ex-head of counterterrorism operations for the CIA, credits Ressam with exposing an international Algerian network that had been nearly invisible.

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An FBI explosives expert learned from Ressam about paper-wrapped chemical detonators that could evade metal detectors. That expert was later called in when Richard Reid, the “Shoe Bomber,” was caught trying to ignite his sneakers on a transatlantic flight. The agents on the scene thought the shoes were harmless because they had no blasting caps. The expert recognized the same paper detonators—and stepped in to defuse them.

Ressam’s disclosures even made it to the White House, in the famously unheeded August 6, 2001, presidential intelligence briefing headlined “Bin Ladin determined to strike in U.S.” After September 11, 2001, the debriefings picked up, and the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s offices in New York—ground zero for terror investigations—took charge of the interrogations.

Claiming Ressam was still “dedicated to radical jihadism,” the prosecutors wanted him sentenced to life.

Ressam identified photos of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, whom he had seen in the training camps, and a Libyan trainer who he said ran the camps. But the interrogators were more excited about two other identifications Ressam provided. He told them a Montreal crony, Samir Ait Mohamed, had assisted his preparations and approached him about bombing a Jewish neighborhood in Montreal. And he tagged a bigger fish: the London-based Abu Doha, aka the Doctor, believed to be al Qaeda’s chief European recruiter and the coordinator of Algerian terror cells around the world. Abu Doha, Ressam recounted, approved his bombing scheme and, he assumed, informed Osama bin Laden of it. Relying on these disclosures, the government indicted Mohamed and Abu Doha and moved to have Canada and Britain, respectively, extradite them.

Special Agent Fred Humphries’s success with Ressam made him a star in the Bureau. “That FBI background in befriending people was critical,” says former U.S. attorney Pflaumer. “It was very important to have a regular agent there, one who spent a lot of time with Ressam, being decent to him.”

But Humphries was promoted and transferred; he went on to teach others around the bureau and in Guantánamo how to interrogate terrorists. The New Yorkers who took over the investigation approached their star witness differently. “Humphries treated him with respect and care,” recalls Hillier. “He helped Ahmed tell his story. But they treated him like a piece of evidence in New York. They came down hard on him.” Former prosecutor Gonzales confirms this account, in classically oblique Seattle fashion: “There’s a big cultural difference between the East Coast and the West Coast. Particularly in Seattle, we’re a little less direct.” Baker, the prosecutor from New York says Ressam “never received less than courteous, appropriate, and professional treatment.”

At the SeaTac detention center, Ressam offered a ready target for the post-9/11 ire of jailers and fellow inmates. According to various reports they banged on bars and taunted him, sang “God Bless America” all night outside his cell, dropped his food on the floor, and, once, slammed him in the face. In March 2002, prosecutors offered to try to place him in the prison version of the witness protection program, where he would be kept out of solitary in a secret, remote prison. Hillier vetoed the idea because it would reduce the defense’s contact with him—a decision he later regretted.

The harassment exacerbated Ressam’s isolation—alone in his cell, not speaking the language, with lawyers, interrogators, and occasional phone calls home his only human contacts. As the interrogations dragged on Ressam grew more impatient and resistant to questioning. When the Germans returned to Seattle to take his testimony in November 2002, “he wasn’t cooperating,” recalls Andy Hamilton, one of the federal prosecutors (and now a King County prosecutor). “Hillier had to talk to him to get him to talk. It’s very hard to describe—he wasn’t vague or nonresponsive. I guess angry is a good word. I hate to use this example, but he was like a rock star who just didn’t want to play anymore.”

But when he wasn’t testifying, Ressam was gracious, even to a prosecutor. “I went up to him afterward and said hello,” says Hamilton. “He was pleasant, and he remembered me. He thanked me for stopping by.”

Something about Ressam—his earnestness and gentle manner, the way he asked how the attorneys who visited him and their families were doing—elicited the sympathy of defenders and even some prosecutors: “It’s a sad case in many ways,” says Gonzales. Hillier and two women on the defense team grew particularly close to him. They were his only contact with the world other than insistent interrogators—a sort of surrogate family. He had not seen his real family in more than a decade.

Hillier scrambled desperately to keep Ressam testifying while imploring the court and prosecution to get him sentenced. He argued that lifting that uncertainty might boost Ressam’s spirits and keep him in the game against Abu Doha and Samir Ait Mohamed.

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In February 2003, Ressam wrote Judge Coughenour avowing that he still renounced terrorism and would “honor that agreement [to testify] even after I am sentenced.” The prosecutors weren’t impressed: “The letter was a ruse,” says one. They persuaded Coughenour to postpone the sentencing and keep the pressure on.

Two months later, while preparing their case against Mohamed, prosecutors asked Ressam to confirm what they’d recorded him as saying in earlier debriefings. He replied that he didn’t recall some of the statements attributed to him and couldn’t say whether they were true. “I never thought it was credible when he said he wasn’t cooperating because he didn’t remember,” says New York prosecutor Robin Baker. She and her colleagues feared Ressam was already betraying his promise to testify, stymieing their cases.

Ressam’s defenders told the court that years of interrogation, solitary confinement, and uncertainty as to his fate were taking a toll on his mental health. Hillier says the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 set Ressam further adrift. “He’d signed up to help the U.S. government. The next thing he sees is us invading Iraq, killing other innocent people. It shook the moral foundation of why he was cooperating in the first place.”

Finally, in mid-2003, Hillier called a break in the interrogations and urged that Ressam get a psychological evaluation. The prosecution agreed, and Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who’s written extensively on the effects of solitary confinement, was called in.

Grassian later evaluated Jose Padilla, who was isolated and tormented for four-plus years before finally being tried for conspiring to build a radioactive dirty bomb. “By the time I saw him, Padilla was dramatically psychotic,” says Grassian. “Ressam was not.” But Ressam displayed many classic effects of solitary confinement: obsessive thoughts, “severe anxiety and panic attacks, increasing depression, difficulty sleeping, impaired thinking and concentration.”

“I lost my appetite to do anything,” Grassian’s report quotes Ressam as saying. “I walk back and forth, look at the pictures in a magazine, talk to myself. It’s torture to go through that every day.” And for someone coming from a modest culture, the obligatory strip searches whenever he left his cell were especially humiliating.

The lengthy, repetitive interviews induced what Grassian reported was another common condition: “The past, and his past statements, and what he was being told were his past statements all began blurring together into a hopeless muddle.” (Anyone who has testified or given affidavits in a legal proceeding and had to correct attorneys’ misconstructions and misrepresentations may be able to sympathize.)

“At the beginning, I was treated with respect,” Ressam told Grassian, but “when I became confused or uncertain, they would get angry at me…. Someone came from the New York office. I was open and sharing information, and he kept saying ‘What else, what else?’ Or they would take something I said and push me to say something they wanted me to say.”

On top of that, Ressam felt like a dupe for cooperating after being first promised (as he believed, evidently confusing defense hopes with a prosecution guarantee) a 15-year sentence and then seeing it raised to 27. “I feel regretful that I made a mistake in cooperating [and] abused and used because I was weak. In the beginning I trusted their word, and later their word meant nothing to me.”

Grassian’s report went beyond conventional diagnosis to offer a sympathetic biographical sketch. Ressam’s father had fought for liberation from the French but found himself marginalized afterward. Ahmed, the oldest son, was the family’s great hope. He studied hard but failed to get into university, then tried and failed to become a policeman. So he joined the millions of other young Maghreb men seeking work in Europe, but found just casual labor and hostility. He washed up in Canada and took to stealing, scamming, and drinking. Finally he fell in with the jihadists and found “dignity and self-respect.”

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He sought the same values in his collaboration with the government, but felt betrayed: “At first they say that the information I give them is good, then [they say] 27 years and my help is no good. They don’t respect anything.”

The prosecutors sneered at Ressam’s avowals and dismissed Grassian as acting more as “advocate” than clinician. But in June 2004 they got Ressam transferred out of solitary and into the prison witness program. When Grassian saw him that October, he seemed more relaxed and clear-headed, and he agreed to testify before a grand jury four months later. Grassian, who observed his testimony, says Ressam was responsive but insistent about not being pushed to confirm points he wasn’t sure of. “He was willing to say Abu Doha was going to get him a ticket from London to Algeria. He would not say Abu Doha was going to help him ‘escape,’ because he didn’t know that.”

After two hours, Ressam had nothing more to say. The prosecutors believed he was trying to recant what he’d said before. They called a halt and told the court he would not cooperate; the case against Abu Doha had stalled. “It was insane,” exclaims Grassian. By alienating Ressam, “they’d hurt U.S. interests. I couldn’t believe this country was trying so hard to get this one little guy, Ahmed Ressam.”

That was the last interrogation. Ressam’s collaboration with the government had become a bad marriage, and Coughenour’s hearings had become counseling sessions. The prosecutors complained that Ressam was sabotaging their cases and demanded a firm commitment—that he wait to be sentenced and stand by past statements until Mohamed and Abu Doha were tried, however many years that might take. Otherwise, they said, let’s call the whole thing off. The judge, trying to patch things up, granted a three-month continuance.

But the relationship was too far gone; Ressam’s case moved to sentencing in April 2005. U.S. Attorney John McKay, acknowledging Ressam’s cooperation but calling it “incomplete,” sought 35 years. Hillier, extolling the value of what Ressam had provided and contending that a change in case law had invalidated the 27-year deal, requested just 12 and a half years.

Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22, plus five years’ supervision. And he concluded on an extraordinary note, with a ringing defense of the judicial process and a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration: “We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, or detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant, or deny him the right to counsel, or invoke any proceedings beyond those guaranteed by or contrary to the United States Constitution…. Despite the fact that Mr. Ressam is not an American citizen and despite the fact that he entered this country intent upon killing American citizens, he received an effective, vigorous defense, and the opportunity to have his guilt or innocence determined by a jury of 12 ordinary citizens. Most importantly, all of this occurred in the sunlight of a public trial. There were no secret proceedings, no indefinite detention, no denial of counsel.

“The tragedy of September 11th shook our sense of security and made us realize that we, too, are vulnerable to acts of terrorism. Unfortunately some believe that this threat renders our Constitution obsolete…. If that view is allowed to prevail, the terrorists will have won.”

"I thought the world would little note nor long remember what I said there,” Coughenour says now with mock modesty. In fact, jaws dropped in the courtroom, and at least one reporter rushed back and requested a transcript to be sure of what he’d heard. Conservatives lambasted Coughenour as, in the words of syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin: “the terrorists’ little helper” and “an embarrassment to conservatives.”

“I wish he hadn’t made it so political,” says prosecutor-turned-judge Steve Gonzales. Indeed, Coughenour’s remarks waved a red flag before the Bush administration, which already mistrusted local judges’ tendency to mete out far lighter sentences than the national average.

But U.S. Attorney John McKay seemed unfazed at first. Right after the sentencing he declared that justice had been served and 22 years was “a very significant sentence” that would deter other terrorists. Then he conferred with higher-ups in DC and did something prosecutors rarely do: He appealed the sentence.

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The case detoured to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Attorney General Michael Mukasey personally argued the government’s side. Then it went before a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, meeting in Seattle. In August 2008 a two-judge majority found that Coughenour hadn’t sufficiently explained his choice in light of the sentencing guidelines and sent the case back for resentencing.

At the resentencing hearing in December 2008, the prosecution ratcheted up its recommendation—to 45 years—and its rhetoric. Deputy U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett compared Ressam’s failed scheme to the 9/11 attacks and, driving the point home, introduced the father of a Twin Towers victim who’d come out to urge against leniency. If Ressam had “chosen to cooperate immediately…maybe 9/11 wouldn’t have happened,” Bartlett suggested, not mentioning that the authorities didn’t try to get him to cooperate then because they thought him too insignificant.

Bartlett lamented that because Ressam wouldn’t testify against Mohamed and Abu Doha, the United States had to withdraw its charges and let Canada and Britain release them. (Canada actually deported Mohamed to Algeria, and Britain kept Abu Doha under electronic house arrest and a communications blackout.)

Ressam insisted on representing himself at the resentencing. He asked the court to dismiss all the testimony he’d given before—“the statement that was put in my mouth”—and dismiss every case built on it. (This didn’t affect the cases he’d already testified in; the convictions stood.) After that, he didn’t care: “So sentence me to life in prison or as you wish. I have no objection to your sentencing.”

Fair enough, countered Bartlett: Since Ressam was once again “dedicated to radical jihadism” and trying to “affirmatively aid known terrorists,” the prosecutors would make their own switch. Instead of 45 years, they urged he be sentenced to life in prison.

Judge Coughenour didn’t agree. He echoed what he’d said in 2005: that harsh confinement and grueling questioning had contributed to Ressam’s mental deterioration and withdrawal, that his earlier contributions were still “invaluable,” and that to downplay them “would diminish the likelihood of future cooperation by other apprehended terrorists.” He reimposed the same sentence: 22 years. And he again looked to the big picture: “As our nation prepares for a new chapter of American history with a new president, it is my hope that those with the power to affect the way terrorism trials are conducted in this country will look favorably upon this case.”

Not a chance. The U.S. Attorney’s Office appealed the sentence. This February, the same two appeals judges who’d ordered the first resentencing delivered an even stronger rebuke to Coughenour. They found he’d abused his discretion, given too much credence to the defense and Dr. Grassian and not enough to the prosecution, let Ressam off too easy, and failed to protect the public. This time they not only overturned the sentence but ordered the case reassigned to another trial judge.

And so a new round of appeals begins, this time launched by the defense. “Ahmed may be a fatalist, but I’m not giving up,” says Hillier, and then he sighs. “I wish I hadn’t gotten myself into all this. It’s just crushing me. But I really love Ahmed. I’ve worked very hard to save him. I think he’s worth saving.”

Determined jihadist, a gentle soul who took a very wrong turn, or both, Ahmed Ressam is out of the way now, even more isolated than he was in SeaTac solitary. In 2005, after being sentenced, he was transferred to the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado—also home to Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, Zacarias Moussaoui, and the Unabomber. He gets out of his underground cell to exercise for an hour each day, one day in an indoor cage, the next day in an outdoor cage.

Still, says Hillier, “he seems more at peace. He no longer has the emotional turmoil that was eating him up. He’s put this behind him.”

If so, he’s the only one who has.

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