WASHINGTON, D.C. — The man widely believed to have assassinated the militant Rabbi Meir Kahane — but who was acquitted of murder charges in 1991 — will spend the rest of his life in prison after all.
El Sayyid Nosair was sentenced last week for his role in the plot to bomb New York City landmarks, a terror conspiracy the judge said would have unleashed destruction on a scale unseen since the Civil War.
Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric who orchestrated the conspiracy, also received a life sentence for charges that included plotting to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Eight of his other followers drew sentences ranging from 25 to 57 years for seditious conspiracy and other charges.
"I think it's American justice at its best," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said of the stiff sentences.
Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, who was one of the people on the terrorist ring's hit list, said: "I am gratified that life sentences were handed down in this case. American justice can work."
Prosecutors said the terror campaign began in 1990 when Kahane, the militant leader of the Jewish Defense League, was gunned down at a Manhattan Hotel.
At a 1991 state trial, Nosair was acquitted of second-degree murder in the slaying of Kahane, but was convicted of weapons charges. He was given the maximum sentence of 7 1/3 to 22 years.
At the time, the presiding New York Supreme Court justice sharply criticized the jury's verdict, saying, "This was not a simple case of gun possession," but "a case of extreme violence visited on this city."
Nosair's defense centered on the claim that he was the victim of a conspiracy — organized by someone else — to kill Kahane.
Jurors said they shared a "reasonable doubt" about Nosair's guilt because the prosecution failed to present a witness who saw the defendant shoot Kahane.
"I think that El Sayyid Nosair finally got what he deserved several years ago, but for the brilliance and obfuscation" of his defense attorney, the late William Kunstler, said Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert and producer of the PBS documentary "Jihad in America."
In hindsight, Emerson said, Nosair's ties to the terror ring might have been uncovered during the Kahane trial had the appropriate leads been followed.
"Had there been a thorough analysis of the Nosair materials, and had there been more careful utilization of the Egyptian informant, the World Trade Center bombing could have been avoided," he said.
In the trial of the sheik and his followers, the prosecution's key witness was a former Egyptian army officer turned FBI informant who infiltrated the defendants' circle and covertly taped their conversations.
Incarcerated since 1990, Nosair reportedly continued to organize and help direct a campaign of terror from prison, using inmates' telephone lines, speaking and writing in code.
"Because of the bombing of the World Trade Center, the government made up this case," Nosair said in his defense.
Nosair's cousin, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny, received 57 years on conspiracy and other charges, including possession of fake passports and visas intended to help get Nosair out of the country after a jailbreak.
The sentencing of Abdel-Rahman and his followers came two years after the conviction of four men in the World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Although Abdel-Rahman and his followers were not charged directly in that bombing, they were accused of participating in the organization responsible for the attack.
Before being sentenced, Abdel-Rahman delivered a 100-minute speech in which he cast the United States as "the enemy of Islam."
"This case is nothing but an extension of the American war against Islam," the sheik said in Arabic before a packed and heavily guarded Manhattan courtroom.
But Emerson disputed that remark. "The notion that these fundamentalists can hide behind Islam is something that has been discredited," he said. "The conviction and sentencing shows that the U.S. government will not allow them to use religion as a vehicle to carry out terrorism and that their own perverse notions of what religion sanctions will not be accepted as a defense in the U.S. court system."
Although the stiff sentences may discourage some future terrorist activity, Emerson cautioned that "it will only remain a motivational symbol and sore point for religious radicals and militant fundamentalists who will seek to avenge the infidels' attack on Islam."
Foxman doubts, however, that the outcome in itself could provide an impetus for retaliation.
"They perceive us as the enemy regardless of what we do or don't do," Foxman said. "When you're dealing with extremists and fanatics, they really don't need an excuse. They act out of their own perverted sense of reality."