Who is the real Ahmed Ressam? That is the baffling and fascinating question that once again emerges in light of this week's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling vacating the "millennial bomber's" 22-year sentence.
What I've learned is that Ahmed is a remarkable, complicated and courageous man. He came here with the idea of doing something terribly wrong. He has changed. He's grown...He turned his back on violence publicly and irrevocably. He told the world that this is wrong. A Muslim man from Algeria. Have you ever heard of that before?...What happened was a miracle.
It's this change of heart, Hillier suggested, that led Ressam to begin cooperating with the government. Ressam met with authorities dozens of times, testified against one fellow terrorist and provided information that led the government to begin court proceedings against another.
Yet by the time of the 2005 sentencing, Ressam had stopped cooperating and recanted his previous information. Ressam didn't explain himself, but Hillier took a stab at it, again portraying his client as a complicated soul wrestling not only with the morality of what he had done but with his sense of self-worth.
The government, in its initial debriefings with Ressam, seemed to offer him "a sense of optimism and a feeling of being treated with dignity,"Hillier said. But then its ceaseless demands, all while Ressam was in solitary confinement, turned into an "oppressive, unbearable ordeal" that left him feeling "humiliated." When Ressam put a stop to that, Hillier speculated, he was likely attempting to reassert some degree of self-determination.
U.S. District Judge John Coughenour appeared sympathetic to that portrayal as he sentenced Ressam to 22 years, considerably less than the government requested.
After the 9th Circuit ordered a resentencing, saying that Coughenour had not explained his reasoning for departing from federal sentencing guidelines that would put Ressam in jail for at least 65 years, the judge gave the exact same sentence with a fuller explanation. The judge said he was influenced in part by Hillier's depiction of his client as a "quiet, solitary and devout man whose true character is manifest in his decision to cooperate."
This week, as the 9th Circuit declared that sentence "unreasonable," the court resolutely rejected that view of Ressam.
In finding that Ressam was 'a quiet, solitary and devout man whose true character is manifest in his decision to cooperate,' the district court simply did not come to grips with the many facts demonstrating the contrary. Even leaving aside his plan to blow up LAX, it cannot be overlooked that Ressam spent nearly a year attending three training camps for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan, conspired with other would-be terrorists, used forged documents and false identities on multiple occasions, had been deported from France as early as 1993, violated the immigration laws of the United States, France, and Canada, and planned to rob a bank to obtain funds to carry out out his mission. In the course of robbing the bank, Ressam intended to throw a live hand grenade and run if necessary to get away...
Indeed, based on this record, if there was a period of aberrant behavior in Ressam's adult life, it was during the relatively brief time following his conviction when Ressam provided assistance to the government.
The last time Coughenour sentenced Ressam, the judge said he had grown even more firm in his original convictions. So it's unlikely that the 9th Circuit ruling will change the judge's mind. Yet Coughenour now must sentence Ressam for a third time. Sympathetic to him or not, the judge is going to have to be tougher.