CHICAGO - A 29-year-old Chicago man accused of plotting a suicide bombing overseas and claiming he was inspired by a radical Muslim cleric has agreed to change his plea to guilty, bringing to an end one of the last terrorism trials pending in the city's federal court.
A lawyer for Shaker Masri - whose plea deal was announced Thursday at a status hearing - told reporters that the agreement hammered out with the U.S. Attorney's Office was favorable to his client, though he declined to elaborate.
"Suffice to say, there comes a time when the government makes offers that are difficult to refuse in the light of the potential consequences," Thomas A. Durkin said.
Masri, who was born in Alabama and lived abroad before returning to the U.S. at age 18, was arrested in 2010 after the FBI exposed his alleged plot to attend a Somalia training camp to become a suicide bomber for terrorist groups al-Qaida and al-Shabab.
Attorneys left open the possibility that the plea deal could still unravel, but Durkin told U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman he was confident enough to have the Sept. 12 trial date cancelled. Coleman set July 20 as the day for Masri to change his plea.
None of the government attorneys spoke to reporters after the hearing.
Masri was charged with attempting to provide material support to a violent extremist group and trying to offer material support by use of a weapon of mass destruction outside the U.S. Those charges could carry a sentence of several decades in prison.
Masri allegedly told an informant he admired Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who is believed to have inspired the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings and the failed Christmas Day bombing of a jetliner approaching Detroit. A U.S. drone attack killed al-Awlaki last year.
Several others jailed in Chicago on terrorism charges also have cut plea deals recently, short-circuiting the need for trials and promising lesser sentences.
Suspects also know odds will be against them at trial.
According to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, out of 234 terrorism or terrorism-related criminal cases since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 207 have resulted in convictions - a conviction rate of nearly 90 percent.
"If you go to trial with a terrorism client, your chances are very slim," said Karen Greenberg, the director of the New York-based center.
But Greenberg said a string of recent plea deals in Chicago and elsewhere also might reflect a growing sophistication among defense attorneys, who after 9/11 didn't always have sufficient expertise to secure fair plea deals in terrorist cases.
"Until recently, it was an unfair fight" favoring prosecutors, she said. "Defense attorneys now have a better sense of how to get a good plea deal for their clients."
Among those who changed their pleas before ever making it to trial in Chicago was Sami Samir Hassoun. The Lebanese immigrant pleaded guilty in April to placing a backpack he thought held a bomb near Chicago's Wrigley Field. His sentencing date is Dec. 6.
And last month, a federal judge sentenced Chicago cabdriver Raja Lahrasib Khan for attempting to send aid to al-Qaida to a relatively lenient 7 1/2 years in prison after he changed his plea. He had faced up to 15 years.