NEW YORK, July 3 -- An Algerian man who was arrested in December 1999 as he tried to bring explosives across the border from Canada told a federal jury today that he and his accomplices had planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 2000.
Breaking 18 months of silence, Ahmed Ressam disclosed publicly for the first time that the busy airport was the target of the plot that triggered a nationwide FBI crackdown and widespread fear of terrorism during millennium celebrations.
Sallow-faced and clad in black prison scrubs, Ressam, 33, testified for more than two hours in U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan. He said he had received explosives training in Afghanistan and was following an Islamic fatwa, or religious decree, to kill Americans.
Although he purchased a tourist map and circled three targets, he said, he had planned to bomb just one.
Which one, a prosecutor asked.
"An airport in America," Ressam replied. "In Los Angeles."
Asked why he had targeted the United States for the new millennium, Ressam shrugged slightly.
"If one was to carry out an operation," he said, "it would be best to hit the biggest enemy."
Ressam was arrested by border agents on Dec. 14, 1999, as he crossed by ferry into Port Angeles, Wash., driving a rental car filled with homemade explosives and timers.
He pleaded guilty in April and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He began testifying against another accused conspirator, Mokhtar Haouari, a fellow Algerian émigré who had a trinket shop in Montreal.
Prosecutors maintain that Haouari directed a third conspirator, Abdel Ghani Meskini, to deliver a packet of money and forged visas to Ressam. After the bombing, Ressam planned to use the documents to return to Algeria.
Meskini pleaded guilty in March to charges of conspiring to commit a terrorist act. He too is cooperating with the government and has testified against Haouari.
Prosecutors have attempted to link the millennium bombing plot to Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire who allegedly runs terrorist camps in Afghanistan and has issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Americans. But Judge John F. Keenan so far has refused to allow any mention of bin Laden in the trial, apparently because his name could inflame the jury and he is not a defendant in the case.
Ressam, who faces a sentence of 27 to 130 years in prison, described a long matriculation in the terrorist schools of Afghanistan. He came to his calling, as he described it, along a familiar path. He was a high school graduate in Algeria, a man of humble means who labored in Corsican vineyards and later found his way to Montreal, where he survived on welfare and theft.
He found direction in a fundamentalist brand of Islam, and in March 1998 departed for the mountains of Afghanistan. Never raising his voice, speaking tersely but with little hesitation, he described what he learned.
"I received training in guns," he said.
What kind of guns, asked the prosecutor.
"The large ones."
He took classes in rocket launching, urban warfare, assassination and sabotage training. The latter class focused on how "to blow up the infrastructure of a country," he said.
The prosecutor pressed Ressam for examples. Did he learn to attack airports?
Ressam nodded in an off-hand fashion and listed his sabotage syllabus: "Airports. Power plants. Large corporations."
At night the men split into cells of five or so, grouped by nationality. They talked of exporting their war. Ressam said his cell agreed to meet in Canada, where they would rob banks to raise the money needed to "carry out an operation in America."
After postgraduate training in explosives manufacturing in Jalalabad, Ressam went to Canada. But some fellow cell members could not obtain forged papers and could not leave Europe, he said. As the months passed, he realized that his planned terrorist campaign would center on just one target.
"I started to think, how am I going to carry out this operation," he said. "By myself, I could not do multiple targets."
Ressam testified that at about this time Haouari offered to send a friend, Meskini, to help out. "I told him [Haouari] I am not going to America for tourism," Ressam said. "I am going for some very important and dangerous business. I explained it was a shtah."
A shtah, he added, is an Algerian term for dancing out of danger and fear.
A short while later, Ressam said, he purchased the tourist map and circled three airports in the Los Angeles area. Prosecutors showed the map to the jurors.
Ressam said he selected Los Angeles International Airport because he had landed there once, upon returning from Afghanistan. He planned to load a suitcase with explosives fashioned from fertilizer and nitric acid and leave it in the airport.
Was he aware, the prosecutor asked, that many people would die? Ressam made eye contact with the prosecutor. "Yes. I would have tried to avoid that as much as possible."
But, the prosecutor pressed, you knew many would die?
Ressam nodded again. "Yes."
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