By MATTHEW BARAKAT
The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 24, 2007; 7:13 PM
ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A man once accused of aiding the Taliban with a U.S. group that trained with paintball guns was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison for lying to authorities about training with militants in Pakistan.
Under normal sentencing guidelines, Sabri Benkahla would have received at most a three-year term for his convictions this year on charges of lying to a grand jury, obstruction of justice and making a false statement.
But for the first time, prosecutors were able to obtain a stiffer sentence by arguing that Benkahla's lies effectively promoted terrorism by obstructing a wide-ranging terror investigation.
Prosecutor Gordon Kromberg argued that Benkahla stymied an FBI investigation by giving a grand jury misleading information about his contacts on a 1999 trip to a training camp run by a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the U.S. has since designated a terrorist organization and Kromberg said has links to al-Qaida.
Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors were bitter because the 32-year-old Benkahla, born and raised in the U.S., had been acquitted of giving aid to the Taliban and that they were setting a perjury trap by hauling him in front of the grand jury in 2004. They said investigators had no real hope of learning anything new from Benkahla.
"They still felt they had to get Mr. Benkahla in some way, and this was the way to do it," attorney John Keats said.
Kromberg countered that the FBI had a keen interest in learning more about those who attended Lashkar camps because they have served as breeding grounds for al-Qaida operatives.
"The information Mr. Benkahla has in his head is far more important than the sentence he will receive," Kromberg said.
U.S. District Judge James Cacheris said his decision on whether to apply a "terrorism enhancement" to Benkahla's sentence was one of his most difficult decisions since the federal sentencing guidelines were established in 1987. The lawyers and Cacheris agreed there was no precedent for applying the guidelines in the manner sought by prosecutors.
Cacheris could have sentenced Benkahla to as many as 22 years in prison after applying the terror enhancement, but he cut the sentence to 10 years after giving Benkahla credit for lacking a criminal history and for other factors.
Benkahla's case is one of about a dozen linked to what prosecutors called a "Virginia jihad network" of young U.S. Muslim men who played paintball as a means of training for holy war and who worshipped at the now-defunct Dar al-Arqam mosque in Falls Church. The group's spiritual leader, Ali al-Timimi, is serving a life sentence for soliciting treason by urging followers after the Sept. 11 attacks to go to Afghanistan and take up arms alongside the Taliban.
Benkahla's lawyers argued that prosecutors unfairly linked him to the paintball group; he had played paintball only once and was studying overseas in Saudi Arabia when the paintball group was most active.
"I'm shocked at what has happened and feel betrayed" by the rulings that led to such a stiff sentence, Benkahla told the judge. He said he had been studying overseas "because I wanted to help bridge the gap between the East and West."
The courtroom was packed with Benkahla's family, friends and supporters. Many erupted in tears when marshals took Benkahla into custody. His mother was led out of the courtroom wailing "I want to go to jail with him" and his father shouted, "I want to kiss my son."
Keats said he plans to appeal the conviction and the sentence.