A Boston federal judge has sentenced Rezwan Ferdaus to 17 years in prison for plotting to attack the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol with explosive-filled remote-controlled airplanes.
Judge Richard Stearns of the District of Massachusetts announced the sentence at a 15-minute sentencing hearing on November 1. The hearing was a mostly perfunctory exercise, with Stearns accepting Ferdaus’ plea agreement with the government entered into in July. The deal also included 10 years of supervised release.
But there was plenty of drama from Ferdaus’ emotional supporters before and after Stearns’ appearance in the courtroom and at a press conference after the hearing.
After Ferdaus entered the courtroom, a row of his supporters stood up and shouted messages of support, including: “We love you,” “Stay strong,” and “We support you 100 percent.” Noting the bearded Ferdaus’ closely shaved head, one said, “Look at the hair.”
Before Stearns entered, one of Ferdaus’ lawyers, Catherine Byrne, a Boston assistant federal public defender, quietly advised his supporters to “be respectful” when the judge came in.
After the sentencing and Stearns’ departure, his supporters stood and shouted “Love you,” “So proud of you,” and “Love you Rez.”
When asked for a comment outside the courthouse, Ferdaus’ mother shouted “My son is innocent. Go investigate your government,” before being hustled away by supporters.
On July 20, Ferdaus, 27, of Ashland, Mass., pleaded guilty to attempting to damage and destroy a federal building by means of an explosive and attempting to provide material support to terrorists. The plot included providing explosive devices to undercover agents he thought were al-Qaeda operatives.
As agreed, the government moved to dismiss four counts of the indictment at the sentencing: attempting to damage and destroy national defense premises; receipt of explosive materials; receipt or possession of nonregistered firearms — six fully automatic AK-47 assault rifles and three grenades; and attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, al-Qaeda.
According to the government, Ferdaus began designing and making improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using mobile phones in January 2011.
Starting that June, he supplied a dozen phones to FBI undercover agents, which he thought would be used to kill U.S. soldiers overseas. When an agent falsely told Ferdaus that the first device killed three U.S. soldiers and injured several others in Iraq, he said “That was exactly what I wanted.”
Ferdaus suggested making 20 to 30 such phones each week to send to his “brothers overseas.” A Northeastern University graduate with a degree in physics, he also made a 20-minute training video for al-Qaeda about how to make the devices.
In May and June of 2011, Ferdaus gave the agents two detailed plans about his proposed attacks. Also that May, he traveled to Washington to photograph the Pentagon, the Capitol and sites at East Potomac Park, where he planned to launch his airplanes.
That June, Ferdaus also asked the agents to supply explosives, grenades, fully automatic weapons and a silencer for a ground assault he wanted to make on the Pentagon. He used a false identity to rent a storage space for the weapons and materials.
In September 2011, Ferdaus asked the agents to bring him C-4 explosives, three grenades and six fully automatic AK-47 assault rifles. He was arrested shortly after receiving the explosives and weapons in the storage facility.
In a five-minute statement at his sentencing hearing, Ferdaus read from prepared notes. He did not apologize or directly address the charges against him. He spoke first of his life behind bars. He said that, God willing, he would acclimate and adapt but would “never deign to place a limit on [my] optimism.” He later said he wanted to emphasize everyone’s humanity: “We are all human beings and cannot be depicted as otherwise.” As some of his supporters and family members quietly cried, Ferdaus said, “I happily express the extent to which I’ve come to terms with my situation.”
Stearns said to Ferdaus, “You don’t need any lecture from me” and “the statement shows you have the capacity to search your own soul.” He said he would adopt the plea agreement and recommended sentence.
Stearns told Ferdaus he was “very fortunate to have the family that you do.” Stearns said Ferdaus’ family and the “ability to investigate your own acts” would carry him forward during the tough years ahead.
He told Ferdaus he could stand or remain seated, depending on his religious convictions. Ferdaus stayed seated during the sentencing.
Prosecutor Stephanie Siegmann represented the government, and Miriam Conrad of the Federal Public Defender Office in Boston was in the first chair seat for Ferdaus.
After the sentencing, Conrad read a statement outside the courthouse. She said Ferdaus and his lawyers believed the plea agreement was in his best interest because there’s a high bar to prevail in an entrapment defense. She also said there was no evidence that, before the government’s involvement, Ferdaus sought out contacts with any outside groups. “We continue to question whether the government’s efforts in this and other cases to encourage and prosecute targets who were unable or unlikely to ever act on their own, is an appropriate use of government resources, or an effective tool to fight terrorism,” Conrad said.
One of Ferdaus’ supporters said the family would not make an official statement. He also handed out flyers containing the address of a website with an online petition to support Ferdaus.
At a press conference after the hearing, Jack Pirozzolo, first assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, was asked whether Ferdaus was entrapped. “He had two of the best and most experienced defense lawyers. They never raised an entrapment defense,” Pirozzolo said, adding, “He was given 25 chances to back out of this and each time he said no.”
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.