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Would-be backpack bomber gets 23 years

by MICHAEL TARM Associated Press on May 31, 2013 10:20 AM

CHICAGO — A judge raised the specter of the Boston Marathon on Thursday as he sentenced a young Lebanese immigrant to 23 years in prison for placing a backpack he believed contained a powerful bomb along a bustling city street near the Chicago Cubs’ baseball stadium.

Everyone at Sami Samir Hassoun’s sentencing in a crowded courtroom in Chicago could not help but think of the bombs that went off a month ago concealed in backpacks on the East Coast, killing three people and wounding hundreds more, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said.

“Let’s give the elephant in the room a name: It’s called the Boston Marathon,” he said. “What would have happened had (Hassoun’s) bomb been real would have made Boston look like a minor incident.”

Earlier, prosecutor Joel Hammerman held up the ominous-looking but harmless device fashioned from a paint can that Hassoun put in a trash bin near Wrigley Field, placing it in front of the judge. Hassoun was told by undercover FBI agents, the prosecutor said, that it would destroy half the city block and kill dozens of people.

Minutes before the sentence was announced, Hassoun, a 25-year-old one-time Chicago baker and candy-store worker, apologized for what he’d done in a five-minute statement. Crying, he asked the judge if he could address his family and friends, and then turned to look at them on a nearby bench.

“I am sorry for the actions that I made and the shame I brought on you,” Hassoun said, struggling to keep his composure. “I promise I will become a better person ... and make it up to you.”

Gettleman said he accepted the defense depiction of Hassoun as a uniquely gullible youth and that an informant may have been eager to please his FBI handlers by leading him on — though the judge said that was no excuse for Hassoun’s crime.

During the hearing, prosecutors played secret video recordings of Hassoun during the sting in which he talks about killing people. He explains that one reason to stage the attack along bar-strewn Clark Street is that late-night revelers will be so drunk they wouldn’t notice him dropping a bomb into the trash bin.

In another chilling video shown in court, Hassoun smiles and hums a tune to himself on the night of Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010 — moments before heading off to what he thought would be a major terrorist attack.

“You feel good?” an undercover agent asks.

“Yeah, I’m (doing) great man,” Hassoun responds.

In another video, Hassoun rambles incoherently about then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the need to overthrow him in a revolution.

“When you see Mr. Hassoun on these tapes, all you can think of is that — this guy is really out to lunch,” Gettleman said before turning to look at Hassoun. “I don’t know what was going through your mind — and maybe you didn’t know either.”

Prosecutors also played a surveillance video of Hassoun, wearing a black hoodie, dropping the device into a trash bin at about 12:20 a.m. on Sept. 19, 2010 — while people crowded the sidewalk and music blared from area bars. FBI agents arrested him moments later.

As part of an agreement with the government, Hassoun pleaded guilty last year to two explosives counts. In return, he faced a sentencing range of 20 to 30 years, rather than a maximum term of life in prison.

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