BUFFALO, N.Y. – A Yemeni-American man who attended an Al Qaeda (search) training camp and met with Usama bin Laden (search) shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday.
Mukhtar al-Bakri (search), 23, was the first defendant to be sentenced in the Lackawanna Six case that has been held up by the Bush administration as a model in pursuing and prosecuting terrorism suspects.
Al-Bakri, the youngest of the group, was the last to accept a plea bargain earlier this year. His sentence for providing material support to Al Qaeda was expected to be among the harshest because he is one of only two who completed the camp's training program.
He could have gotten 15 years if convicted at trial. He was also fined $2,000 Wednesday.
He declined the opportunity to speak at his sentencing.
U.S. Attorney Michael Battle said the case would provide precedent for what had been a little-used federal law that prohibits giving money, weapons or other tangible support to foreign groups designated by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations. From early in the case, critics have questioned whether attending the camp met the definition of providing material support.
In California on Wednesday, a federal appeals court overturned part of the federal anti-terror law, saying that it is unconstitutional to punish people for providing "training" or "personnel" to a terror group. The court called those categories overbroad.
The ruling does not apply to the Lackawanna cases, but they could be affected if the California ruling is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unlike his co-defendants, who were arrested in Lackawanna and Buffalo, al-Bakri was taken into custody in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain on Sept. 10, 2002, a day after his wedding.
Authorities considered him dangerous because of an e-mail he sent in July titled "The Big Meal," that suggested an attack using explosives was imminent, and because of an intercepted phone call in which al-Bakri joked that his friends would not be seeing him anymore.
His attorney John Molloy has said al-Bakri was referring to his impending wedding in the call.
The hasty arrests of the men without waiting to see whether they would act provided an early illustration of a post-9/11 strategy shift by U.S. law enforcement agencies more focused on preventing attacks.
As part of his plea agreement, al-Bakri has submitted to multiple interviews with law enforcement officers involved in other terrorism investigations. Citing the sensitive nature, the government has kept details of the meetings secret.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hochul told the judge that al-Bakri and the others have outlined Al Qaeda recruitment and indoctrination methods, described Al Qaeda leaders and detailed the training offered at the camp.
"It is the government's opinion that the information provided by Mr. al-Bakri ... has aided the government in its overriding goal of preventing terrorist acts," Hochul said.
In a sworn document in May, al-Bakri described meeting with bin Laden at the al-Farooq camp in Afghanistan and hearing a bin Laden speech to all of the trainees in which he threatened America and Israel. Al-Bakri said he was trained in assault weapons and explosives and stood guard duty before returning home to Lackawanna, near Buffalo, on Aug. 11, 2001.
Al-Bakri supporters said he and the others were tricked into attending the camp by recruiters who told them they would be learning about their religion, Islam, and how to defend it.
Prosecutors said they had no evidence the men were involved in planning any imminent terrorist act.
"Speculation regarding the actual threat you present has run the gamut from those who believe you were a terror cell member ready to strike, to those who believe you were one of six confused young men who found themselves in over their heads," U.S. District Judge William Skretny said.
But Skretny said none of that matters, telling al-Bakri: "The fact remains you broke the law."
Co-defendant Yasein Taher, 25, was scheduled to be sentenced to at least eight years in prison Thursday. The sentencings of the other members of the group are scheduled for later this month.