Metrorail Plotter Gets 23 Years: What It Says About Sentencing in Terror Cases

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Last October, Farooque Ahmed was arrested in a FBI terrorism sting. Working with operatives he believed to be members of al-Qaeda, Ahmed helped plot attacks on D.C. Metrorail stations by passing on information designed to cause the most casualties. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced Monday to 23 years in prison, with 50 years supervised release, as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

Some officials trumpeted the 23-year sentence as a success. “Today’s plea provides a powerful example of how law enforcement and intelligence officials working together continue to use the criminal justice system to … secure [criminals’] lawful, long-term detention,” said Todd Hinnen, the acting assistant attorney general for national security, in a press release.

Dean Boyd, a DoJ spokesman, told TIME that the Justice Department is “pleased” with the outcome, but offered tempered enthusiasm. He warned against comparing Ahmed’s case to hundreds of other terrorism-related trials, noting that a myriad of factors, from whether a defendant pleads guilty to which judge presides over the case, can affect the outcome.

Boyd’s less-than-ebullient response may stem from a fear that Americans will feel the 23-year sentence is too short, in light of public safety concerns or opinions on due punishment. Or it may seem too long, given that the seemingly amateur Ahmed, a naturalized Pakistani citizen, was drawn into a fake plot. In the wake of another FBI sting, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald articulated this worry, saying the FBI may have “found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a ‘Terrorist plot’ which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI’s own concoction.”

The two counts Ahmed pleaded guilty to — attempting to provide materials to a foreign terrorist organization and collecting information to assist in planning a terrorist attack on a transit facility — carry a maximum combined sentence of 35 years. Each charge also potentially carries a fine of up to $250,000 and supervised release for life. In addition to the guilty plea, Ahmed waived his right to appeal. He forfeited money from his bank accounts, along with his green Honda Accord, and agreed to fully cooperate with the United States in all future cases, according to the plea agreement. These and other concessions bought him the reduced sentence.

The court’s statement of facts, signed by Ahmed, outlines his actions in detail. He helped make himself a target for the sting in January of last year, when he made inquiries about contacting a terrorist organization in order to fight against coalition forces in Afghanistan. After that, Ahmed attended what he thought were secret meetings at a hotel, received instructions hidden in a Koran and sent code-worded emails. At one meeting with undercover law enforcement agents, he told an operative that he “of course” wanted to be a martyr.

He started surveying and filming metro stations, in an attempt to get information about their security and identify the busiest transit periods. He crafted diagrams of stations and suggested places where planted explosives might kill the most people. Meanwhile, he suggested an additional attack and offered thousands of dollars to assist terrorist operations overseas.

How does Ahmed’s 23-year sentence stack up? Last year, judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 22-year sentence given to Ahmed Ressam, an al-Qaeda-trained terrorist who planned to bomb the Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Day, 2000, was too lenient. That ruling followed Ressam’s decision to renege on his agreement to help convict other terrorism suspects.

The court also said that Ressam’s 22-year sentence didn’t adequately protect the public from future crimes. “This factor is particularly relevant in a terrorist case such as this, where Ressam, who has demonstrated strongly held beliefs about the need to attack American interests in the United States and abroad, will be only 53 years old upon his release,” Judge Arthur Alarcón wrote in the opinion for the court. In 23 years, Farooque Ahmed will be 58.

The sentences handed to Ahmed and Ressam were both based on failed attacks. One clear difference is that Ressam’s was a real plot, while Ahmed’s was manufactured by the FBI. Ressam proved himself a professional-level threat; he had training and physically prepared explosives to bomb LAX. Meanwhile, Ahmed reported back to operatives about pretending to talk on the phone while secretly using the phone’s video camera a metro station.

Last year, Somali-born teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested in a FBI sting after he allegedly carried out a plot he thought would set off a bomb near a Portland, Ore., tree-lighting ceremony. The charge, attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, could lead to a life sentence for Mohamud. As in Ahmed’s case, no real bomb was involved.

In the same month Ahmed was arrested, Faisal Shahzad, the architect of a botched attack in Times Square, was sentenced to life in prison. The U.S. District Court judge, Miriam Cedarbaum, said that the sentence was “adequate deterrent to those inclined to follow the defendant and to protect the public against the crimes of this defendant.”

That leads to the two central questions here: Is roughly two-thirds of a max sentence enough to effectively deter others from collecting information for terrorist groups? And is 23 years an appropriate measure of the threat Ahmed poses? Ahmed expressed some regret, saying it “was the wrong action,” while the Times Square bomber told the court that America should “brace yourself, the war with Muslims has just begun.” And while Ahmed’s rhetoric leading up to his arrest seems a great danger in terms of willingness, there’s little proof of his actual ability to carry out a plot on his own.

We can’t know the answers now, but that’s the government’s best guess.