Ali Kourani said the FBI tricked him into incriminating himself, landing him a sentence nearly three times longer than those handed down for more serious terrorism charges.
MANHATTAN (CN) — A Lebanese man who told the FBI he planned to become a suicide bomber for the terrorist group Hezbollah fought to overturn his 40-year sentence at the Second Circuit on Tuesday, saying agents led him to believe the information he provided would secure his immunity from prosecution.
Ali Kourani explained over the course of five interviews that he had scouted airports and government buildings in New York City as potential targets for attacks.
Agents told Kourani that the meetings would “remain confidential,” after the sleeper agent said he feared for his family’s and his own safety. But the information was then used to convict Kourani on eight counts of terrorism.
He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
At oral arguments this afternoon before a three-judge appellate panel, Kourani’s attorney Peter Tomao contended that FBI agents had tricked his client into incriminating himself.
“They never indicated to him that he faced prosecution,” Tomao said — and when Kourani and his attorney referenced the confidentiality agreement they believed was in force, the agents did not deny that such an agreement existed.
“They engaged in the type of deception that this court should not countenance,” he said.
Tomao said U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein erred in sentencing by failing to consider the disparity between Kourani’s four-decade sentence and those of other defendants convicted of providing material support to a designated terrorist.
The attorney then rattled off a handful of 15-year sentences for terrorism-related crimes that included buying weapons, planning an attack on Coney Island and traveling overseas.
Prosecutors argued Tuesday that Kourani’s long sentence sends a message to others. Kourani is indeed the first member of Hezbollah to be prosecuted and convicted in the country, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil J. Bove III said.
Bove noted that the level of sophistication that Kourani brought to his own investigation “sets him apart from virtually any defendant” that the Second Circuit, or any other U.S. court, has considered.
“This is a man who was trained by Hezbollah in counter-interrogation tactics,” Bove said, relating the interviews to the FBI sitting down and interviewing a CIA operative.
Kourani, as a result, surely understood that he was a target, Bove argued. During interviews, he noted, agents told Kourani that lying was a crime, for which he could be prosecuted.
And any talk of confidentiality “certainly was not a promise of immunity, and would not restrict their ability to use the statements in certain ways,” Bove said, adding that the FBI agents ultimately did not have the authority to offer Kourani immunity.
U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary S. Pooler asked Bove if there was any direct harm to a person or government that could be traced to Kourani.
“Who was the potential victim?” asked Pooler, a Bill Clinton appointee. “Are you telling me there was no actual victim of this crime, that Mr. Kourani is going to serve 40 years [over]?”
Although no one was hurt, Bove responded saying that, “I believe the victims are very real.”
“Tell me who they were,” Pooler said.
Bove went on to say that Kourani may have been surveilling, in a “coordinated and strategic way,” potential targets for attacks.
Participating in the remote hearing from his office, Bove told the courtroom that he was looking out the window at 26 Federal Plaza, a building that houses several federal government agencies.
Kourani could have been scouting out information like where security personnel stationed themselves, where exits were placed, and what uniforms officers were wearing, Bove said.
Pooler asked the attorney whether he was speculating, presenting an “if” situation.
“The results of that ‘if’ are enormous, and extremely tragic,” Bove said.
In a phone interview following the oral arguments, Kourani’s attorney said he thought the arguments had gone well and that he made his case.
“The evidence is clear: There was nobody who was hurt, there were no actual plans for any kind of terrorist activity, there were no weapons purchased in New York or the United States,” Tomato said. “And the government was acting like this guy was about to attack 26 Federal Plaza.”
Tomao advocated for reversing Kourani’s case because “the only evidence in the case were the statements that my client made. There was very weak, almost nonexistent corroboration of what he said,” on the part of investigators.
“They’re very impressed with themselves that this is one of the first convictions they have,” of someone from Hezbollah, Tomao said. But he noted, there are “a dozen” other, similar cases where sentences were around 10 to 15 years. Factors under 18 U.S. Code § 3553 should have been considered, he said.
Bove did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.