RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina man was sentenced Friday to four life terms for plotting to behead federal witnesses whose testimony helped convict him for his role in an earlier plot to slaughter U.S. servicemen and their families.
Hysen Sherifi, 29, was one of six Raleigh-area Muslims convicted in 2011 of planning to attack the Marine base in Quantico, Va., and overseas targets.
Shortly after starting his 45-year prison sentence in the terror case, Sherifi approached another inmate to help him hire a hit man to behead government informants and FBI agents. He recruited his younger brother Shkumbin Sherifi, 23, and former special education teacher Nevine Aly Elshiekh, 48, to help pay the hit man and organize the murders.
But the inmate whose help Sherifi sought turned out to be yet another government informant. FBI agents then staged an elaborate sting that involved secretly videotaped meetings with a woman posing as the go-between for a fictional hit man named Treetop and doctored photos that appeared to show the corpse of a beheaded witness in a shallow grave.
Federal prosecutors recommended leniency for the two coconspirators, who pleaded guilty last year and agreed to testify at the elder Sherifi's trial on nine felony counts.
Citing their extensive cooperation, U.S. District Senior Judge Earl Britt sentenced the younger Sherifi to 3 years in prison, while Elshiekh got 3 1/2 years. They had faced as much as 10 years each.
Before Hysen Sherifi was sentenced, he lectured the judge about Islamic teachings.
"The Koran is the truth that invalidates all other religions," said Sherifi, who declined a court-appointed lawyer and represented himself at trial. "If you do not submit, he will severely judge you, and on the day of judgment you will enter hellfire."
"That it?" asked Britt, who has served more than three decades on the federal bench. The judge then tacked the four life sentences onto the end of Sherifi's earlier 45-year prison term, along with another 50 years on top of that.
"There can be no doubt Mr. Sherifi, the defendant in this case, meets the definition of a terrorist," Britt said. "He was the genesis of this conspiracy. He was the mastermind, though I'm hesitant to use that term because it affords him more credit than he is due."
Noting that the defendant was unsuccessful in killing anyone, Britt said Sherifi's worst transgression was destroying the lives of his little brother Shkumbin and Elshiekh, with whom he had carried on a romantic dalliance from behind bars.
Elshiekh, a U.S. citizen whose parents emigrated from Egypt, was a respected teacher of special-needs children who was also active as a youth leader at her Raleigh mosque.
According to court testimony, she had just undergone a painful divorce from a cheating husband when she began attending Sherifi's 2011 terrorism trial. She later began visiting him regularly in jail.
Dr. Emily Keram, a forensic psychiatrist hired by the defense, testified that Elshiekh was molested as a child by an uncle in Egypt and then trapped in an arranged marriage to a "con man" who later abandoned her to marry another woman.
Elshiekh was prescribed several psychiatric drugs that impaired her ability to reason and made her pliable to the will of others, the psychiatrist said.
At Hysen Sherifi's direction, Elshiekh gave a collection of gold jewelry given to her by her ex-husband to the younger brother, who pawned the pieces to raise the $5,000 he believed was needed to hire the hit man to execute the first victim.
Elshiekh claimed she had no idea what the money was for until she followed her paramour's direction to meet with a woman in a parked car. The woman, an informant for the FBI, showed Elshiekh a photo of one of the targeted witnesses and asked her to confirm that was the first man to be killed.
Though she then knew what the money was for, Elshiekh continued on with the plot for another 20 days until her arrest.
In her early court appearances, Elshiekh wore a headscarf and a black dress that fully covered her arms and legs. On Friday, her long hair trailed down her back and she wore western clothes.
In a tearful apology before the court on Friday, she accepted responsibility for what she had done.
"I wish I could turn back time, but I can't do that," she told the judge. "I never wanted anyone to get hurt."
Wearing shackles and a black Chicago T-shirt, Shkumbin Sherifi declined to address the judge before sentencing.
The Sherifis are ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo in 1999 during a brutal sectarian war with Serbs and ended up as refugees in Raleigh. Though Hysen gravitated toward a militant strain of Islam, his younger siblings acclimated more readily to life in America. Shkumbin went so far as to record an amateur rap album.
Among those testifying Friday was one of the government witnesses Hysen Sherifi wanted dead. Melvin Weeks was a U.S. Army soldier serving in Kosovo after the war when he met the older Sherifi, who was visiting his grandparents.
Weeks, a Muslim, said Sherifi praised Osama bin Laden and showed him jihadist videos that included a hostage being beheaded. Though an American bombing campaign had saved the ethnic Albanians from genocide just a few years earlier, Weeks said Sherifi called for holy war against the very nation that gave his family a new home.
"In my opinion, he is a devil manifested here on Earth, walking among us," the former soldier said.
Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck