A federal judge in Brooklyn handed down a 45-year prison sentence Tuesday to a Texas native convicted last fall of supporting al-Qaeda and conspiring to murder Americans.
Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, 32, of Houston, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan in the Eastern District of New York.
Farekh’s case renewed a lengthy debate in the Obama administration over whether it was legally and morally permissible to target and kill a U.S. citizen overseas without a trial. Though U.S. authorities nominated him to be placed on a terrorism kill-list, he was captured in Pakistan and eventually brought to the United States for prosecution.
“With the sentence handed down today, al Qaeda terrorist Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh is being held accountable for his crimes,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a statement Tuesday.
The sentencing caps yet another successful prosecution of an international terrorism case even as the Trump administration wrestles with whether to bring future cases to military tribunals. “This case shows once again that criminal prosecutions in the federal courts move swiftly and land heavy sentences for those engaged in terrorist activity,” said Joshua Geltzer, former White House senior director for counterterrorism in the Obama administration and a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University.
Farekh had traveled overseas, joined al-Qaeda, and conspired to kill Americans, including through an attack using explosive devices on a remote U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009, prosecutors said.
Farekh was detained in Pakistan in 2015, transferred to U.S. custody, questioned and then secretly flown to New York to face terrorism charges. In September, he also was convicted on charges of conspiracy to bomb a U.S. facility and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Farekh, who was raised in Dubai, served in al-Qaeda’s external operations unit from 2007 to 2014, prosecutors said. In March 2007, Farekh and two fellow students from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, traveled to Pakistan intending to fight American troops, they said. Before leaving, the men watched videos encouraging violent jihad and listened to sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic preacher and operational leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — and a U.S. citizen — who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Before Awlaki’s killing, the Obama administration engaged in intense, internal debate over whether the lethal targeting of a U.S. citizen overseas without judicial process was lawful and sound policy. In the wake of Awlaki’s death, the administration imposed new rules that, among other things, directed that the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should carry out lethal strikes against Americans overseas suspected of terrorism.
On Jan. 19, 2009, al-Qaeda operatives drove two trucks loaded with explosives to the gate of Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. The first truck blew up, wounding several bystanders, including a U.S. serviceman and a pregnant Afghan woman. The second truck hit the blast crater left by the first truck and failed to explode.
Farekh, prosecutors said, helped build the second truck bomb. Forensic technicians recovered 18 latent fingerprints from the device that matched Farekh’s.
Farekh’s lawyer, David Ruhnke, said that Farekh would appeal his conviction.