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4th Circuit affirms terrorist’s sentence

RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court upheld the life sentence given a U.S. man who joined al-Qaida and plotted to replicate the 9-11 terrorist attacks and assassinate then-President George W. Bush.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that a judge properly concluded that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali’s conduct was worse than that of most other convicted terrorists and that his lack of remorse showed he would be a danger if ever released from prison.

Abu Ali had argued that his life term was unreasonably harsh, presenting evidence from 25 other terrorism cases in which defendants received sentences ranging from 57 months to 30 years.

However, the appeals court said none of those cases were as serious as Abu Ali’s. The court noted that Abu Ali “conspired to commit acts on our nation’s soil that would inflict massive civilian casualties,” including attacking nuclear power plants and hijacking and crashing planes.

“Further, Abu Ali conspired to cripple the United States government by assassinating members of the Senate, the Army, the Executive Branch, and even the President himself,” the court said. “In short, as the trial court noted, Abu Ali sought to inflict harm of a singular sort.”

Abu Ali’s lawyer, Alice L. Fontier, said she had not yet spoken with her client or his family about whether to appeal to the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Obviously we disagree with the court’s decision,” she said.

Abu Ali, 29, was born in Houston and grew up in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, where he was valedictorian of a private Islamic high school. He joined al-Qaida while attending the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis arrested Abu Ali in June 2003 as he was taking final exams. Abu Ali confessed that he joined al-Qaida and discussed plots with some of Saudi Arabia’s most senior al-Qaida members, including plans to assassinate Bush and also establish an al-Qaida terror cell in the United States.

Abu Ali was held in Saudi Arabia for 20 months before he was brought to the U.S. to face charges in February 2005.

Jurors in his three-week trial saw a videotaped confession Abu Ali gave to the Saudis in which he said he joined al-Qaida because he hated the United States for its support of Israel. The terror plot that most appealed to him was killing “the leader of the infidels” — then-President Bush.

Abu Ali initially was sentenced to 30 years, but the Richmond-based appeals court rejected that as too lenient and sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee for resentencing. Lee imposed the maximum life term in 2009.

At the second sentencing, Lee determined that a 30-year term would not sufficiently protect the public because of the seriousness of Abu Ali’s crimes, his refusal to accept responsibility or express remorse and his stated desire for martyrdom.

Abu Ali also claimed on appeal that the life term was punishment for exercising his right to a jury trial and his right to remain silent. The court found no merit in those claims or his assertion that a life sentence spent mostly in solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Abu Ali is being held at a maximum security federal prison in Florence, Colo.