ALI AL-TIMIMI was sentenced last week in a federal court in Alexandria to spend the rest of his life in prison. Mr. Timimi was the spiritual leader of a group of would-be Virginia jihadists, who aimed, after Sept. 11, 2001, to take up arms on behalf of the Taliban. His crime was not any act of terrorism or violence but making a series of speeches that prosecutors contended -- and a jury found -- incited his followers to train for war against the United States. Some took up paintball. Others attended terrorist training camps. But none actually fought against American troops or their allies. Mr. Timimi, in other words, has been sentenced to life in prison for words that had little effect.

We don't mean that his conviction is necessarily improper. Procuring a crime, even if one does it orally, is not protected by the First Amendment, and Mr. Timimi clearly instructed his followers in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 to join the war in Afghanistan. The jury evidently concluded that Mr. Timimi's words were not merely an expression of his political or religious beliefs but an active solicitation of criminal behavior by someone who was admired among a group of people who attempted to carry out his wishes.

Still, the sentence -- compelled by federal mandatory-minimum sentencing laws -- is too harsh. Mr. Timimi's words were abhorrent, and his intent may have been malevolent. But life in prison for inciting a jihad that never got waged is excessive. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, in handing down the sentence, called it "very draconian." True, some other members of the paintball jihad group have received dramatically long sentences as well, but that's hardly an excuse. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws give judges no discretion to distinguish between damaging crimes and attempts that, however motivated, did not produce horrendous results. Even in national security cases, federal sentencing needs to strike a better balance.