KANSAS CITY, Missouri (AP) — A businessman who swore an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida and three years ago pleaded guilty to providing financial support to the international terror group was sentenced Monday to 14 years in prison, despite a plea from his attorney for leniency because of the risk he took by becoming an informant against the organization.
Khalid Ouazzani, 35, who pleaded guilty in May 2010 to bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to support a terrorist group, was sentenced in federal court in Kansas City.
Federal prosecutors claimed Ouazzani provided more than $23,000 to al-Qaida and had pledged more, with the hope of eventually traveling to the Middle East to join the fight against the U.S.
In his guilty plea, Ouazzani admitted making false claims to borrow money for a used auto parts business and wiring the proceeds to a bank in Dubai. That money was used to purchase an apartment in Dubai that later sold for a $17,000 profit, which was given to al-Qaida. Ouazzani also admitted sending the terror group $6,500 from the sale of his business.
Ouazzani, a married father of two who became a U.S. citizen in June 2006, admitted in his plea bargain to bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to support a terrorist group after acknowledging he gave money and swore an oath of allegiance to the terror network in 2008.
At Ouazzani's sentencing hearing Monday, his attorney, Robin Fowler, asked U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs for a five-year sentence — Ouazzani already has served roughly 42 months — because his cooperation with federal authorities had landed his two co-conspirators in jail.
That makes him a snitch and a Muslim who provided support to al-Qaida, both of which puts his life behind bars in danger, Fowler said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Casey said the government recommended 15 years — sharply reduced from the roughly 30 years he could have gotten under sentencing guidelines — for supporting the terrorist group and committing bank fraud.
Sachs noted that the charge of supporting al-Qaida is a serious crime, and despite Ouazzani's cooperation in the separate case he needed to be adequately punished.
"He did cooperate, as the judge stated, but that doesn't erase what he did," U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson said after the hearing. "A lot of damage, a lot of lives could have been lost with that $23,000."
Federal officials said last year that Ouazzani was part of a small terrorist cell with two New York men, Sabirhan Hasanoff and Wesam El-Hanafi, both of whom pleaded guilty in June 2012 to their roles in the conspiracy.
After he was arrested in February 2010 on 33 counts, Ouazzani told investigators about Hasanoff and El-Hanafi. When confronted by information Ouazzani provided, the two New Yorkers pleaded guilty last year, Fowler said. Without his cooperation, both might still be involved with terrorism, he said.
Ouazzani, who wrote an eight-page letter to the judge apologizing for his actions, addressed the court before Sachs handed down the sentence.
"I make no excuses for the crimes I committed," he said. "I'm not proud of the mistakes I've made. I'm ashamed."
Ouazzani's contributions to al-Qaida went through Hasanoff, a Brooklyn accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers who moved to Dubai in 2007, according to court documents. El-Hanafi, who accepted Ouazzani's oath of allegiance to al-Qaida, was an information security specialist in Brooklyn with Lehman Brothers before moving to Dubai around 2005.
The three met in Brooklyn in May 2008 to discuss membership in the terrorist organization, about a year after El-Hanafi had connected with two experienced terrorists in Yemen, court records show.
Those terrorists — referred to in court documents as "Suffian" and "The Doctor" — later told FBI agents after being arrested in Yemen that the Americans believed the money and equipment they sent were being set aside for their military training that eventually would land them in Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Instead, The Doctor admitted he and Suffian divided the money and equipment between themselves, gave some of the money to the families of Islamic martyrs and bought a few cars.
Though the Americans apparently were scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars, federal prosecutors said they still aspired to "support violent extremist Islamic causes."