ALEXANDRIA, Virginia – A U.S. man who became an al-Qaida terrorist while attending college in Saudi Arabia and plotted to assassinate then-President George W. Bush was defiant Monday as he was sentenced to life in prison.
An appeals court had overturned the original 30-year sentence for Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, 28, who was born in Houston and grew up in the Washington suburb of Falls Church. He was convicted in 2005 of joining al-Qaida while studying in Saudi Arabia in 2002. Abu Ali met with top al-Qaida leaders in Saudi Arabia and discussed establishing a sleeper cell in the United States.
“I would like to remind you that you too will appear before the divine tribunal with me and everyone else,” he said in a brief statement to U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee. “That day there will be no lawyers … If you are comfortable with that, you can decree what you will.”
Last year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ordered a new sentencing hearing, saying Lee’s original sentence was too lenient.
The appeals court ruled Lee was off the mark in comparing Abu Ali’s case to that of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, who made a plea deal and was sentenced to 20 years. The appeals court said Abu Ali’s conduct was far worse – he joined al-Qaida after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, while Lindh joined prior to them, and Abu Ali specifically sought to attack the U.S., while Lindh only sought to fight in Afghanistan.
Lee said Monday the new sentence takes into account that Abu Ali has never renounced al-Qaida or terrorist activities, and that he could be a threat to the American public if released. Abu Ali has been in solitary confinement at a federal prison in Florence, Colo.
“There’s no way to know what his mental state would be after 30 years of solitary confinement,” Lee said.
Abu Ali appeared in court in a prison jumpsuit and with long, slicked-back black hair and a beard. He repeated claims that he was tortured by Saudi authorities into giving a confession.
“This was a case manufactured by the Saudi torture regime and expedited to the United States for trial,” he said.
Lee said he had held a lengthy hearing to decide whether Abu Ali’s videotaped confession should be thrown out and the judge, a jury and an appeals court all concluded it was voluntary.
Abu Ali received training to carry out the assassination plot and other terrorist acts, according to testimony. He was arrested by Saudi authorities during a crackdown on al-Qaida there in 2003.
Abu Ali was valedictorian of a private Islamic high school in Falls Church and he has received significant support from segments of the region’s Muslim community. At Monday’s hearing, Lee pointed to a folder stuffed with letters testifying to Abu Ali’s good character.
Abu Ali’s father, Omar, declined comment after Monday’s resentencing.
Defence lawyer Joshua Dratel said he will appeal the sentence. Dratel said he hoped that Abu Ali’s statement did not persuade the judge to impose a life sentence.
David Laufman, who as an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuted Abu Ali in 2005 and is now in private practice, questioned whether Abu Ali talked himself into a life sentence at the hearing Monday.
“Abu Ali’s utter refusal to express even a scintilla of remorse for his conduct or a repudiation of his association with al-Qaida clearly contributed to the court’s determination,” Laufman said. “What did come out today was that this is a hard-core jihadist.”