Ashland terror suspect to plead guilty

Karen Greenberg in Boston Globe, July 10, 2012

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The Ashland man who allegedly hatched a home-grown terrorism plot to fly explosive-laden, remote-controlled airplanes into national landmarks in Washington, D.C., has agreed to plead guilty, according to a deal filed Tuesday in US District Court in Boston.

Rezwan Ferdaus would serve 17 years in prison followed by 10 years of supervised release and would be subject to a fine under the agreement to plead guilty to two charges: attempt­ing to damage and ­destroy a federal building by means of an explosive and attempt­ing to provide material support to terrorists.

Ferdaus, 26, faced life in prison under sentencing guidelines for those charges, before the agreement was reached. Prosecutors have also agreed to dismiss four additional charges of supporting terrorists and obtain­ing weapons.

A hearing for Ferdaus to plead guilty has been set for ­July 20 before US District Court Judge Richard Stearns, who would have to approve the agreement.

Ferdaus’s lawyers and prosecutors would not comment ­beyond the plea deal. Initially, his lawyers argued that he was a young, mentally ill man who was prodded by a government informant into going along with the act.

But terrorism specialists have said defendants in similar cases have received tough punishments when it is shown that they not only agreed to a terrorism plot, but also led the planning, and identified targets.

“There’s a scale in how terrorism cases go, and he seems to have taken the lead” in planning the crime, said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, who studies terrorism cases and convictions. Greenberg said that defendants in similar cases have received 25-year sentences.

The arrest of Ferdaus in September 2011, just after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was one of the most significant alleged active terrorist plots the area has seen in recent time. He was described by friends as a former peaceful musician, who quoted Ghandi, but who grew angry as he became more devoted to his religion. His fellow Mosque members in Roxbury said they asked him to leave for expressing extreme views of his religion.

Prosecutors said Ferdaus was “a ticking time bomb.” A graduate of Northeastern University, with a physics degree, Ferdaus was accused of plotting to send remote-controlled airplanes loaded with 24 pounds of C-4 explosives into the Pentagon and the US Capitol. He was arrested after undercover agents, posing as Al Qaeda members, delivered the explosives and weapons to him at a Framingham storage facility he had rented.

US authorities said a confidential informant alerted them to Ferdaus because of some of the things he was saying in support of Al Qaeda and of his desire to carry out an ­attack.

Ferdaus was also accused of modifying cellphones into control switches for improved explo­sive devices that would be used to kill American military personnel. He allegedly ­expressed pride when told that one of them may have killed an American soldier.

Ferdaus’s decision to plead guilty comes three months after another local man, Tarek ­Mehanna, was sentenced to 17½ years in prison for supporting terrorists, after he was found guilty by a jury last year. Mehanna, 29, originally from Sudbury, has told the Globe through supporters that he was offered an opportunity to plead guilty to certain charges in ­exchange for a sentence of only 10 years. He refused.

Greenberg said that both cases included significant terrorism accusations: Mehanna was accused of traveling to ­Yemen in search of Al Qaeda training. However, she added, Ferdaus’s case included an ­active plot to carry out an ­attack, and he was the alleged mastermind.

Ferdaus also received support from civil rights groups ­after it was disclosed that he suffered a mental illness and that the FBI knew of it. At one of his initial proceedings, a family member could be heard pleading with him to take his medication.

Greenberg said such cases show the need to properly ­assess the allegations of terrorism, particularly when the use of a government informant is involved. She said there is a fine line between using an informant to glean information and prodding someone into taking action.

“The real issue that comes to light is how do we understand informant cases when it comes to people who are mentally ill, who have been diagnosed as mentally ill,” she said.