“If it deters one person, it would seem worthwhile,” a federal judge said of giving Akayed Ullah a life sentence to discourage other would-be suicide bombers.
MANHATTAN (CN) — A Bangladeshi immigrant who planned to end his life in an attack on New York’s busy Port Authority will instead spend the rest of his days in federal prison.
The guidelines sentence of life in prison plus a consecutive 30-year sentence was “more humane than the sentence you would have imposed on yourself,” U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan told Akayed Ullah during the one-hour hearing held in person on Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Manhattan.
A George W. Bush appointee, Sullivan called the rush-hour plot “truly heinous,” and “about as serious a crime as there is,” though no lives were lost.
Ullah, now 31, was arrested in December 2017 after his homemade bomb — packed with metal screws and rigged with Christmas tree lights — failed to fully explode, leaving him with serious burns. The detonation spread panic but caused only minor injuries to those near him in a pedestrian tunnel beneath Times Square and the Port Authority bus terminal.
The fact that the bomb strapped to Ullah’s chest malfunctioned did not render his “intent any less sinister,” Sullivan said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebekah Donaleski echoed this point at Thursday’s hearing, noting that Ullah’s effort in the name of Islamic State group marked “one of the few completed terror attacks in New York City since 9/11.”
“When you attack New York City, there will be no leniency,” Donaleski said.
A New York jury convicted on Ullah all six counts in 2018. He faced concurrent life sentences on three counts, with a mandatory prison sentence of at least 35 years. Federal prosecutors said he should spend the rest of his life behind bars for a “premeditated and vicious” terror attack committed on behalf of Islamic State group.
Sullivan on Thursday called the lifetime term of imprisonment “harsh,” but said it is “a just sentence that fits the crime.”
“If it deters one person, it would seem worthwhile,” the judge said.
In court filings, the government argued that Ullah has never taken proper responsibility for the December 2017 attempted suicide bombing.
“He ultimately answered ISIS’s call for its supporters to carry out ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist attacks in the United States. Ullah’s attack was premeditated and vicious,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.
Prosecutors also cited evidence that, after surviving the bombing, “Ullah proudly declared to law enforcement that he carried out the bombing for ISIS.”
While in jail, he told a guard: “You started this war, we will finish it. More is coming, you’ll see,” the government alleged.
Prosecutors called a life sentence “necessary and appropriate to reflect the abhorrent nature and extreme seriousness of Ullah’s terrorist bombing.”
At the sentencing hearing on Thursday morning, federal defender Amy Gallichio characterized Ullah as a “deeply troubled and tortured” first offender.
Grieving the death of his father, Ullah was “alone and isolated” and became a “target of hatreds, racism and Islamaphobia,” Gallichio said.
“Thirty-five years is an eternity,” Gallichio said at the hearing, seeking a minimum sentence instead of a lifetime term of imprisonment. “Thirty five years is certainly incapacitating.”
In a brief last month, Gallichio wrote that the mandatory-minimum sentence of 35 years was an adequate punishment because his attack was an aberration from an otherwise peaceful life.
Attorneys for Ullah did not call any witnesses during the five-day trial, during which prosecutors worked to show that Ullah had been radicalized by the Islamic State as far back as 2014.
Ullah briefly spoke at the sentencing hearing, expressing remorse for the attempted bombing.
“I am deeply sorry what I did,” he said, remaining seated for three minutes he spoke. “I do not condone violence.”
“I apologize to N.Y.C., to law enforcement, and to this court. I never support harming innocent people,” Ullah said in solemn and measured cadence. “What I was doing was wrong.”
Ullah also apologized to his family, whose “lives have been ruined” by his actions, he said.
Ullah’s mother attended the hearing Wednesday, which was held in-person with socially distanced seating due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
At trial, prosecutors showed jurors Ullah’s post-arrest statements and social media comments, including when he taunted then-President Donald Trump on Facebook before the attack.
Hours after Ullah’s bombing attempt, Trump derided the immigration system that had allowed Ullah — and multitudes of law-abiding Bangladeshis — to enter the U.S.
Ullah got an entry visa in 2011 because he had an uncle who was already a U.S. citizen. Trump said allowing foreigners to follow relatives to the U.S. was “incompatible with national security.”
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss praised the sentence Thursday. “Ullah’s motive was clear and unambiguous: a deeply held ideological hatred for America,” Strauss wrote. “Ironically, Ullah’s actions resulted only in reaffirming the greatness of America by displaying the fairness and impartiality for which our justice system stands.
“Ullah received a speedy, fair, public trial, and was convicted by a jury of his peers,” the Southern District of New York’s top prosecutor said. “Akayed Ullah’s message of hatred clearly backfired; his just sentence of life in prison only exemplifies that cowardly acts of terrorism will be met with law enforcement’s unwavering resolve to protect our core values of freedom and democracy.”