COLUMBUS, Ohio – A man accused of joining Al Qaeda in the early 1990s and helping teach fellow Muslim extremists how to bomb U.S. and European targets pleaded guilty Tuesday to planning terrorist attacks.
Christopher Paul, 44, pleaded guilty to a count that carries a maximum life prison sentence, but entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors that calls for a 20-year term.
U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost accepted the plea but said he would not give final approval to the deal until he sees the government's pre-sentence report, which is not expected for several months.
No sentencing date was set.
Paul pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction — specifically bombs — in terrorist attacks. Prosecutors agreed to drop charges of providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy to provide support to terrorists.
Paul, a U.S. citizen born and raised in Ohio, didn't make a statement and his attorneys left the court without commenting. Paul was indicted in April 2007 and had been set to go to trial early next year.
The plea doesn't specify where Paul planned to use bombs. But the charge corresponds with a statement prosecutors presented in court Tuesday that Paul plotted with a German terror group to bomb Americans at home and abroad. Paul agreed in court to the accuracy of the statement.
The statement, read by FBI agent Tisha Hartsough, said Paul traveled to Germany in 1999 and trained members of an alleged terrorist cell knowing the group planned to make bombs and car bombs to use against Americans vacationing at overseas tourist resorts.
The statement said the German group also planned to use bombs against Americans in the United States and against overseas U.S. facilities such as embassies, military bases and consular premises.
The government didn't say if any attacks were carried out.
Paul, who has short hair and a long, slightly graying black beard, was quiet in court. His only words were a polite series of, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir," to questions from Frost about the plea.
A message seeking comment was left for Paul's lawyers after the court hearing.
The Justice Department had also accused Paul and two other men of discussing terrorist attacks during an August 2002 meeting at a coffee shop in suburban Columbus.
The other two have pleaded guilty and were convicted: Nuradin Abdi in connection with an alleged plot to blow up an Ohio shopping mall, and Iyman Faris in connection with a plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge.
"Today marked the third time that a central Ohioan has stood up in front of a federal judge and pleaded guilty to committing an act of terrorism," said Fred Alverson, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Alverson declined further comment, saying the government's investigation was continuing. The government has not identified other individuals connected with the trio and no other charges are pending.
The FBI statement said Paul, who converted to Islam in the late 1980s, joined Al Qaeda after traveling to Afghanistan in the early 1990s and became committed to furthering the objectives of that group and other radical Islamic fundamentalists.
As part of his association with Al Qaeda, he fought with holy warriors in Afghanistan at a time when the mujahadeen were battling Afghanistan's post-Soviet Marxist government.
The statement said Paul returned to Columbus after fighting in Afghanistan to recruit other individuals to a holy warrior group in the city, an effort that involved teaching the martial arts at a local mosque.
Paul grew up in the Columbus suburb of Worthington. He was one of a handful of blacks at the high school, where he competed in gymnastics and was known as a friendly, cooperative and polite student who was never in trouble.
"He worked pretty hard, he was very punctual, he was always in class, he was extremely respectful of me," said Worthington high school teacher Mark Ellwood, who had Paul in a world civilization class in about 1981.
Glenn Alban, a Worthington lawyer who graduated with Paul in 1983, said Monday he was saddened by the government's allegations.
"I don't know what happened to him that would make him make these sorts of choices," Alban said.