HOUSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld the conviction of a former Texas college student from Saudi Arabia sentenced to life in prison for trying to make a bomb for use in a religious attack that possibly was targeting former President George W. Bush.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday rejected an appeal from Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, 23. A federal court jury in Amarillo in June 2012 convicted him of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Prosecutors said Aldawsari, serving his life term at a federal prison in Terra Haute, Ind., had collected bomb-making material in his Lubbock apartment and researched possible targets, including Bush's Dallas home, the Cotton Bowl, Hoover Dam and "people of New York," according to the trial transcript.
Aldawsari's lawyers contended in their appeal before the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit that the trial judge improperly allowed evidence, gave invalid jury instructions and erred in calculating Aldawsari's sentence.
Dan Cogdell, the lead attorney for Aldawsari, did not immediately respond to messages Friday from The Associated Press.
Aldawsari was arrested in February 2011 after the FBI searched his computer and apartment for evidence under terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows such searches if there's probable cause the offender is an "agent of a foreign power." The appeal contended the search involving Aldawsari wasn't valid because there was no evidence of any foreign power's involvement.
But a three-judge panel of the appeals court said "protection of the nation against terrorist threats" made the search proper under a provision of the act.
Attorneys also argued Aldawsari never completed the bomb but had made "mere preparations," meaning a single sentence in the jury instruction referring to the crime of attempt was invalid. The court said the reference in the appeal was taken out of context and the instruction as a whole was correct.
In addition, the appeal said the sentence was too severe. While the punishment was the maximum the trial judge could impose, "we do not find the district court abused its discretion," the appeals panel said.
Aldawsari arrived in the U.S. legally in 2008 to study chemical engineering. A handwritten journal found in his apartment included notes that he believed it was time for "jihad," a Muslim term for holy war.
Federal agents also found explosive chemicals, wiring, a hazmat suit and clocks, along with videos showing how to make the chemical explosive TNP.
At his trial, his attorneys claimed he was a harmless failure who never came close to attacking anyone.
He told U.S. District Court Judge Donald E. Walter at his sentencing hearing in November 2012 he was lonely and isolated from family, friends and faith.
"I am sorry for these bad actions, but none of these bad actions did harm to the United States," Aldawsari said.
FBI bomb experts say the amounts of chemicals he had would have yielded almost 15 pounds of explosive, about the same amount used per bomb in the 2005 London subway attacks.
Investigators say they were tipped to his online purchases by a chemical company and a shipping firm.
Aldawsari had transferred from Texas Tech in early 2011 to nearby South Plains College, where he was studying business. A Saudi industrial company was paying his tuition and living expenses in the U.S.