NEW YORK: A British man being treated for schizophrenia was sentenced to 20 years in prison on US charges that he helped in a failed attempt to set up an Al Qaeda training camp in a remote part of Oregon two years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Haroon Aswat had admitted in a guilty plea in March that he traveled to Bly, Oregon, in 1999 at the direction of Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, a double-amputee and radical cleric based in London.
The Sheffield, England-born Aswat also admitted that his job was to help train recruits who wanted to fight jihad. But his lawyers argued Friday that he deserved a lesser term because he was a minor player in the plot who became a personal assistant to Mustafa, but never adopted his views.
Over time and through treatment for his mental illness, he told the judge, “I have chosen peace over violence. … I hope to lead a peaceful, crime-free life.”
Prosecutor Shane Stansbury cited evidence that Aswat had traveled to Afghanistan to receive military-style training from al-Qaida, telling US District Judge Katherine Forrest, “To paint this man as a pacifist is a complete distortion of the truth.”
The judge agreed to the stiffer sentence, but also sought assurances from prosecutors that Aswat, 41, would receive sound mental care while in custody, even if it meant returning him to the United Kingdom to serve his sentence.
Afterward, defense lawyers said their client would receive credit for 10 years he spent behind bars in Britain fighting extradition and an additional year for his time in US custody. In court papers, prosecutors confirmed Aswat is eligible for “good time credit” and can apply for an international prisoner transfer subject to approval by the Department of Justice.
Authorities say Mustafa, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, turned London’s Finsbury Park Mosque in the 1990s into a training ground for Islamic extremists, attracting men including Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid. He claims to have lost his hands fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
According to court papers, conspirators spoke of choosing a site known as Dog Cry Ranch for the camp because the property was located in a “pro-militia and firearms state” that “looks just like Afghanistan,” and that the group was “stockpiling weapons and ammunition.” But the camp never materialized beyond a dozen people taking target practice, authorities said.
Mustafa was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison following a trial in the same Manhattan courthouse.