NEW YORK — A Tunisian man accused last year of plotting to organize a U.S.-based terrorism cell is "far more dangerous" than his guilty plea to immigration charges would indicate, the government said Monday, though his lawyer said investigators had failed in their effort to groom him to be a terrorist .
In competing pre-sentencing briefs filed in Manhattan federal court, prosecutors described 27-year-old Ahmed Abassi as a terrorist sympathizer while his defense attorney portrayed him as a gullible engineering student grappling with an overeager undercover FBI agent posing as a real estate maven who could help him get back to his wife in Canada.
Abassi is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday. Prosecutors say he should face more than the zero to six months in prison called for by federal sentencing guidelines while his lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, said the 15 months he has already served is sufficient.
Prosecutors said Canada revoked Abassi's visa when he was visiting family in Tunisia because he had become a target of an investigation into Chiheb Esseghaier, another Tunisian citizen who was eventually charged in Toronto with conspiring with al-Qaida members in Iran in a plot to derail a train that runs between New York City and Montreal. Esseghaier has pleaded not guilty.
At the urging of the undercover agent, Abassi in March 2013 flew to the United States, where he met frequently in a Manhattan apartment with Esseghaier and the agent.
Prosecutors said Abassi flatly refused to assist Esseghaier in plots to attack Americans and Canadians inside the United States and Canada, so much so that Esseghaier urged the undercover agent to toss him out of the apartment.
But the government said Abassi's conversations revealed "dangerous, extremist views." It quoted him as telling the agent that he had told Esseghaier he could kill 100,000 people by putting bacteria in the air or water supply.
Prosecutors said Abassi also wanted to support an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria with money and weapons.
They noted that when Abassi was filling out a green card application and encountered a question asking if he had ever provided money, assistance or material support to a terrorist group, he laughed as he said: "Not yet."
Abassi was "far more dangerous than simply an immigration fraudster," prosecutors wrote.
In her papers, Shroff said Abassi did not plead guilty to terrorism charges and the case should not be treated like a terrorism case.
Instead, she said, her client was "a young man placed in a desperate position by the U.S. and Canadian governments who said things to please the undercover agent."
She said her client had suffered enough, including more than four months spent in isolation with food delivered to him through a 10-inch-wide slot.
Shroff said Abassi was young, opinionated and impressionable when he fell under the influence of the agent, who tried unsuccessfully "to groom him to become a terrorist."