By John Shiffman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Maryland honor student pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring to help a Pennsylvania woman known as "Jihad Jane" plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had offended some Muslims.
Mohammed Hassan Khalid, 18, is believed to be the youngest person ever charged with terrorism in a U.S. civilian court. He faces a sentence as high as 15 years in prison.
Khalid, who moved with his family from Pakistan to suburban Baltimore in 2008, was a high school student who had been accepted on a full scholarship at prestigious Johns Hopkins University.
According to filings by U.S. prosecutors, Khalid began communicating online with fellow jihadists in the United States, Ireland and South Asia as early as age 15.
One of them was Colleen R. LaRose, the suburban Philadelphia woman who called herself "Jihad Jane." LaRose pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. The artist had offended some Muslims by drawing a cartoon with the head of the prophet Mohammed on a dog's body.
U.S. officials have said the "Jihad Jane" case is unusual because it involves a green-eyed, blonde American woman who boasted that her appearance and U.S. passport allowed her to conduct terror activities without drawing suspicion.
"Today's plea, which involved a radicalized teen in Maryland who connected with like-minded individuals around the globe via the Internet, underscores the evolving nature of violent extremism today," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Lisa Monaco.
During a short hearing at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, officials said, Khalid pleaded guilty to a single charge of providing material support to terrorists.
Khalid's lawyer, Jeffrey Lindy of Philadelphia, said in an interview afterward: "This is saddest case I've ever been involved with in my career. He's a smart kid who understands what's happening. But how much can an 18-year-old brain comprehend about a life-altering experience like this?"
Khalid helped LaRose raise money and recruit other conspirators online "to wage violent jihad in and around Europe," U.S. officials said. In addition, Khalid helped LaRose hide a stolen U.S. passport and, officials said, hoped "he could personally provide it to the mujahideen."
Khalid also communicated with one of the plot's alleged leaders, Ali Charaf Damache, an Algerian living in Ireland. Damache, who used the alias "Black Flag," is charged with conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists. He was arrested in 2010 in Ireland on an unrelated charge and the United States is seeking to extradite him on the American terror charges.
LaRose was arrested in October 2009, shortly after returning from a visit to meet Damache in Ireland.
The FBI arrested Khalid in July, when he was still a juvenile, but the case was not unsealed until September, when he turned 18. Under the plea agreement, he faces adult charges.
In a statement, Zane Memeger, the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia, highlighted Khalid's youth.
"This case has demonstrated that age is not a limiter to threats to our nation's security," Memeger said. "Regardless of a defendant's age or background, we are committed to keeping our communities and our country safe through the investigation and prosecution of violent extremist activity."
Khalid was a legal U.S. resident, but, unlike his siblings and parents, he did not become a naturalized American citizen. As a result, Lindy said, Khalid is likely to be deported back to Pakistan after he finishes serving his U.S. sentence.
Another blonde American woman, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez of Leadville, Colorado, was also involved in the case. She traveled to Ireland and married Damache. Paulin-Ramirez and LaRose arrived in Ireland at about the same time - early September 2009 - and met for the first time there. Paulin-Ramirez returned to the United States and pleaded guilty to a lesser terror charge.
U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker in Philadelphia has not set a sentencing date for any of the defendants.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)