An Algerian-born al-Qaeda operative who recruited Montgomery County's Colleen "Jihad Jane" LaRose and others in a 2009 plot to assassinate a Swedish cartoonist pleaded guilty Monday and agreed to a 15-year prison term, bringing the final conviction in one of Philadelphia's longest-running terrorism cases.
The plea by Ali Charaf Damache — who was indicted in 2011 and has been held in custody in Philadelphia since his extradition from Spain last year – came as something as a surprise. Just eight months earlier, the pugnacious defendant interrupted one of his earliest court appearances, demanding he be allowed to fire his lawyer and alleging he had been fed false promises of a shorter sentence in exchange for cooperating with authorities.
But in Monday's hearing before U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker, Damache, 53, was significantly more subdued. Dressed in an olive prison jumpsuit, his black-framed eyeglasses pushed atop his head, he mumbled responses to a series of questions from the bench – showing only glimpses of his earlier combativeness.
Asked by Tucker whether he was pleading guilty because he believed himself to be guilty, he hesitated for a moment before responding: "I think so. Yes."
As part of his deal with prosecutors, Damache agreed to accept the maximum sentence on a count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, and said he would not fight attempts to deport him to Ireland or Algeria – countries in which he holds citizenship — once he has completed his prison term.
In exchange, prosecutors dropped another charge they had lodged, accusing him of identity theft in support of a terrorist plot.
The deal must be officially approved by Tucker at a sentencing hearing scheduled for Oct. 30.
Still, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams on Monday characterized the outcome as ideal in a case that produced some of the earliest prosecutions of Americans radicalized over the internet — a threat that has become more acute in the seven years since Damache was charged.
"Mr. Damache … recruited individuals from the United States and brought them over to Europe," she said. "He was organizing a plan to train them in explosives and send them out to the West to conduct violent jihad."
Those recruits included LaRose, whose 2009 arrest and fiery online rhetoric under the screen name "Jihad Jane" shocked an America still coming to terms with the threat of international terrorists. Blond, white, and blue-eyed, the Pennsburg woman hardly fit the profile many in the United States associated with Islamic extremism.
But those very qualities made her attractive to Damache. He admitted Monday that he set out to recruit LaRose and others like her in hopes they could more easily move across borders with less suspicion.
His other targets included Jamie Paulin Ramirez, a Hispanic single mother from Colorado, and Mohammad Hassan Khalid, a former high school honors student from Maryland who at the time of his 2012 plea hearing was the youngest person convicted in the U.S. on terrorism-related charges.
And Damache courted them all aggressively, operating in jihadi forums under the online moniker "theblackflag."
In his postings, Damache detailed his plans to recruit a "professional organized team" with "brothers" who could travel freely across Europe and "sisters" who would act in supporting roles. He hoped to send his cell members to al-Qaeda camps in South Asia for explosives training that they could put to use in Europe.
We "have already organized everything for her," Damache wrote of LaRose in a 2009 email to Khalid quoted in court filings Monday. We "are will[ing] to die in order to protect her, no matter what the risk is."
Later that year, Damache persuaded LaRose and Ramirez to join him in Waterford, Ireland, with promises they would launch an attack on Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist whose work depicting the prophet Muhammad's head on the body of a dog had offended some Muslims.
LaRose became disenchanted and eventually left the group before they could carry out their attack, calling an FBI tip line seeking money to return home.
Ramirez, who took her 6-year-old son to Ireland, married Damache the day she arrived. Prosecutors played videos at her 2014 sentencing showing her and Damache goading the boy, dressed in a traditional Middle Eastern headdress and long robes, into cheerfully vowing to kill nonbelievers.
Asked Monday in court whether he admitted to trying to train Ramirez's son "in the ways of violent jihad," Damache paused.
"I suppose so," he eventually responded. "Yes."
Damache was arrested in Ireland in 2010 shortly after that video was shot, but it was not always clear that he would face justice in a U.S. courtroom.
The Obama Justice Department secured Damache's indictment in 2011, but he successfully fought extradition to the U.S., convincing a judge in Ireland that he faced "inhuman and degrading treatment" if jailed in an American prison. Spanish authorities found him seven months later in Barcelona and agreed to hand him over to the U.S.
But by the time his extradition was finalized last year, the Trump administration had taken control of the Justice Department, and both the new president and newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had explicitly advocated on the campaign trail that foreign-born terror suspects should be tried in front of military tribunals, not in U.S. courts.
Asked Monday whether Damache's case in Philadelphia signaled a reversal in the administration's stance, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain, a Trump appointee, was hesitant to draw any broad conclusions.
"Each case has to be considered individually," he said. "This case doesn't stand for the proposition that there will never be military tribunals or that there won't be other ways of approaching a case. But the extradition requests here were always based on the idea that there was going to be a federal courtroom prosecution."