ALEXANDRIA — In a precedent-setting case, a Virginia man was sentenced to 10
years in prison yesterday for lying to authorities about his participation in a militant training camp in Pakistan. Prosecutors successfully argued that his lies obstructed a wide-ranging terrorism investigation.
Under normal sentencing guidelines, Sabri Benkahla, 32, of Falls Church 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.
Prosecutor Gordon Kromberg argued that Benkahla stymied an FBI investigation
when he refused to tell a grand jury 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.
Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors were bitter because Benkahla previously
had been acquitted on charges 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.
U.S. District Judge James Cacheris said his decision on whether to apply what’s
called 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 that there was no precedent for applying the guidelines in the manner sought by prosecutors. Cacheris could have sentenced Benkahla to as much as 22 years in prison after applying the terror enhancement but cut the sentence to 10 years after giving Benkahla credit for lack of a criminal history and other factors.
Benkahla’s case is one of about a dozen linked to what prosecutors called a
“Virginia jihad network” of young 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 had been one of only two people who had been acquitted in those cases. His lawyers argued that prosecutors unfairly linked him to the paintball group; he had only played paintball once and was studying overseas in Saudi Arabia when the paintball group
was most active.
The courtroom was packed with Benkahla’s family, friends and supporters. Cacheris said he received more letters in support of Benkahla than he had in any other case, including a character reference from U.S. Rep. James P. Moran, D-8th, who has close
ties with Northern Virginia’s Muslim community.