NEW YORK – An Algerian man was sentenced Wednesday to the maximum 24 years in prison for his role in a failed plot to detonate a suitcase bomb at the Los Angeles airport amid the millennium celebrations.
Mokhtar Haouari, 32, who lives in Canada, was convicted by a Manhattan jury last July of federal charges that he supplied fake IDs and cash to two others in the plot.
The defendant turned down the opportunity to speak before sentencing and sat impassively during the hearing.
Haouari had asked, though his attorney, for a low-end sentence of 17 years. But U.S. District Court Judge John Keenan opted for the maximum term.
"The defendant's conduct posed a great risk to the well-being of the American people," Keenan told the crowded courtroom in lower Manhattan.
At the time, prosecutors said the attack on the crowded airport in the days before Jan. 1, 2000, could have been the bloodiest act of terrorism against the United States since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The plot was foiled when its mastermind, Ahmed Ressam, was arrested at Port Angeles, Wash., while trying to enter from Canada in a car with a trunkful of explosives in December 1999. Ressam had been trained in terrorist camps financed by Usama bin Laden.
The jury deliberated two days before finding Haouari guilty of the top count: conspiracy to supply material support to a terrorist act. He was also convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud but was acquitted of another terrorism charge.
Haouari was accused of supplying Ressam with phony identification and $3,000 used to buy bomb-making chemicals as part of a holy war against the United States.
"The defendant played an important part in what could have been a terrible tragedy," prosecutor Robin Baker told the jury.
The prosecution's case hinged on the testimony of Ressam, who was convicted in Los Angeles of charges including explosives smuggling, lying to customs officials and planning to commit acts of international terrorism. He agreed to testify against Haouari in hopes of reducing a potential 130-year sentence.
Ressam was still awaiting sentencing.
Also taking the stand was Abdel Ghani Meskini, an Algerian living in Brooklyn who was recruited by Haouari to visit Seattle in 1999 to help Ressam with the plot. Meskini, who was also waiting for a sentencing date, had pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in a cooperation deal with prosecutors.
During the trial, Haouari became so enraged during Meskini's testimony that he smashed his head against the wooden defense table, making himself woozy.
Other prosecution evidence included phone records and phony driver's licenses and other documents.
The jury acquitted Haouari on a charge that he aided the airport bombing plot in particular. Prosecutors acknowledged that Haouari didn't know the exact bombing target, but the jury could have convicted him if it had found that he deliberately avoided details about the plot.