HACKENSACK, N.J. — Two ex-CIA officers, a retired brigadier general and a Muslim cleric are part of a team of defense experts who could help a federal judge decide the punishment for a pair of North Jersey men convicted of conspiring to join a terrorist group to commit murder and mayhem overseas.
The list of advisers includes psychiatrists and psychologists, among them a consultant on the government’s side who figured prominently in the cases of a would-be presidential assassin and the only person tried and convicted in a U.S. court on charges of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The dueling experts could influence how long Mohamed Mahmood Alessa of North Bergen and Carlos Eduardo Almonte of Elmwood Park, N.J., will spend in prison. Alessa, 23, and Almonte, 26, each face up to life after pleading guilty in March 2011 to conspiring to murder non-Muslims outside the United States. They were arrested by the FBI at John F. Kennedy International Airport in June 2010, as they attempted to board separate flights to Egypt.
In what has become a slow, methodical process for a hearing that’s still nearly three months down the line, the advisers have completed their evaluations and are assisting the lawyers in refining their arguments. They will square off during what could be a weeklong hearing in Newark that will mark the first time in New Jersey that a panel of specialists has been assembled to try to get inside the heads of a pair of homegrown terrorists.
The hearing, which was to get under way in early February, is now set to begin April 15. U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise recently granted a defense request for more time to submit forensic reports and legal memos — due in part to damage related to superstorm Sandy.
Although federal sentencing guidelines prescribe a term of 30 years to life, under their plea deals the government agreed not to seek a sentence of more than 30 years, and defense lawyers agreed not to argue for less than 15.
The judge, however, is not bound by the plea agreement and can impose any sentence he deems appropriate. As is customary in such proceedings, neither side would preview their positions or discuss the case in advance of the hearing.
The defendants’ youth, cultural identity issues, history of bad behavior, mental health and vulnerability “to either a sophisticated law enforcement agent or the influence of a powerful cleric” are among the factors likely to play key roles in the sentencing, said lawyers who have been involved in terrorism cases.
Given their clients’ acknowledgement of guilt, the defense will raise various mitigating factors to try to convince the judge they are not “hard-core terrorists” who should be locked away for life, said Rocco C. Cipparone Jr., one of the defense lawyers in the case of five men convicted in 2007 of plotting to attack the Fort Dix Army base.
“Maybe there are things in their upbringing or their background that psychologically made them weak and vulnerable at a particular time, or explain why they developed this state of mind,” Cipparone said.
“If you are a hard-core terrorist, the courts and the Congress — in terms of the sentencing guidelines — look at you as if you are essentially hopeless in terms of … rehabilitation,” he said. “Or, put more directly, once a terrorist, always a terrorist. You’re always going to be a recidivist because it’s ideologically based. And that may be one of the things the defense will try to counter.”
Still, the prosecution can be expected to press for a stiff sentence, said Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who won the convictions of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and 11 others for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and for planning a series of attacks against New York City landmarks.
“There’s no more important offense that we prosecute than terrorism,” he said, “and if you’re not going to give terrorists the top of the [penalty] range, who should get the top of the range?”
“If I were the government, I’d be arguing, look, under the guidelines these guys should be getting life. We’ve already given them a bargain by topping them out at 30 years. The thought that they should now be sliced down to 15 should be something that isn’t even considered,” he said.
Advising prosecutors as they prepare for the sentencing are Barry A. Katz, a Livingston psychologist, and Raymond F. Patterson, a Washington-based psychiatrist.
Patterson has testified as a government witness in its efforts to block the release from a mental hospital of John W. Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan and three others. He also evaluated Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th terrorist, who was arrested less than a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and later pleaded guilty for his role in the plot.
Alessa — an American citizen of Palestinian descent who was born in Jersey City — and Almonte — a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic who converted to Islam — have admitted that when they were arrested, they had intended to travel to Somalia. There, they said, they would fight with Al Shabaab, an armed insurgent group affiliated with al-Qaida that has recruited more than 20 Americans in recent years.
During the investigation, the two men were secretly recorded by an undercover officer talking about beheading Americans and sending them home in body bags. Alessa said he would start killing non-believers of Islam at home if he were unable to do so abroad.
Their arrests focused a spotlight on the problem of homegrown terrorism just a month after a failed car-bombing attempt in Times Square and seven months after a shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in which 13 people were killed and 29 wounded.
“I’ll do twice what he did,” Alessa boasted, referring to the carnage left by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born Muslim of Palestinian descent and an Army psychiatrist who has been charged with gunning down soldiers and civilians at Fort Hood in November 2009.
“My soul cannot rest until I shed blood,” Alessa said, according to government transcripts. “I wanna, like, be the world’s known terrorist.”
It will be the job of the defense experts to put such remarks into context and help the judge determine how much weight to give them.
But McCarthy, the former federal prosecutor, said he would expect the government to make the most of the defendants’ recorded statements to show their motives and to counter any claims that they were led astray by the undercover officer.
“Usually the recordings, and this is the reason people plead guilty in the first place, will undermine any claim that the guy was so powerfully influenced it was almost as if he was out of his own body and not in control of what he was doing,” McCarthy said.
The defense consultants are certain to focus on the defendants’ troubled youth. As a child, Alessa suffered bouts of anger that led to visits to psychologists and psychiatrists as he bounced from school to school, his family has said. In his teens, Almonte was arrested for fighting, drinking and bringing a knife to school, the Elmwood Park police have said.
Two of the defense experts cited in court records, Robert Baer and Marc Sageman, are former CIA case officers who served in the Middle East and know the world of terrorism very well.
Baer, a 21-year CIA veteran, is the author of “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism,” the book that inspired the movie “Syriana.”
Sageman, a psychiatrist, sociologist and counterterrorism consultant, has been described in The New York Times as one of America’s leading theorists on terrorism and how to fight it. His books, “Understanding Terror Networks” and “Leaderless Jihad,” are based on his study of the lives of about 400 terrorists.
If the defense decides to call them as witnesses, they could illuminate what it means to be a real terrorist, said Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law. Sageman is one of the most respected authorities on radicalization, she said.
“Whether he’s focusing on the cell or the individual who joins the cell, he’s followed the evolution of al-Qaida from the beginning, before [Osama] bin Laden built his network,” she said.
Baer and Sageman know what “the drive to be connected with al-Qaida looks like and … how terrorist networks function, and what it takes to become involved, trained,” she said. She added that the case “very likely may be very far from what it would mean to be a committed jihadi warrior.”
Defense attorneys also have tapped Yasir Qadhi, an American Muslim cleric, to shed light on the pressures exerted on young Muslim men and the ways in which they are targeted with jihadist propaganda.
According to the FBI, Alessa and Almonte consumed a steady diet of radical teachings ranging from the importance of waging violent jihad to the use of suicide vests. Their computers and cellphones were found to contain documents written by bin Laden and his successor as the leader |of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and video and audio recordings by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Muslim cleric killed in Yemen in 2011by a drone-fired missile.
Awlaki’s radical online lectures have been cited as a motivator in terrorist cases in the United States, England and Canada. Hasan, |the defendant in the Fort Hood shooting, had exchanged emails with Awlaki before the deadly rampage. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab met with the cleric before Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane with a bomb hidden in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square would-be bomber, cited Awlaki as an inspiration.
Another defense witness, Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who served 28 years with the Army medical corps, is regarded as an authority who can help the court distinguish between a committed terrorist and someone who is perhaps a wannabe.
Xenakis spent hundreds of hours at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, evaluating detainees and assisting their attorneys.