By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A 20-year-old Chicago-area man pleaded guilty on Thursday to a federal charge of trying to provide support to Islamic State militants in exchange for prosecutors agreeing to seek a prison sentence of no more than five years.
Mohammed Hamzah Khan told U.S. District Judge John Tharp that he had intended to travel to Syria to work for Islamic State, including taking a possible combat role, and acknowledged that he knew the U.S. government considers the group a terrorist organization.
Khan was 19 when he was arrested in October 2014 at O'Hare International Airport as he tried to travel to the Middle East with his siblings, then 17 and 16 years old.
The case has highlighted the problem of young Americans and Europeans influenced by online propaganda by Islamic State, which has seized territory in Iraq and Syria, kidnapped and beheaded captives and declared a modern caliphate. The United States has led air strikes against the group.
The United States also has tried to block recruiting, with investigators saying 80 percent of Americans linked to activities supporting militant movements have radicalized themselves over the Internet.
The maximum penalty in Khan's case is 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine plus a long supervised release. But if he continues to cooperate with prosecutors - potentially providing insight into online recruiting - the government agreed to recommend a sentence of five years.
Khan's lawyer, Thomas Durkin, said he would seek a sentence of fewer than five years at the time of sentencing early next year.
Durkin said Khan was brainwashed by slick online propaganda and that while he understands why his client decided to plead guilty, he remains skeptical that prosecution is the answer to the wider problem.
"I don't think anybody wants to see American kids being warehoused for being brainwashed by ISIS (Islamic State)... This could happen to anybody," Durkin told reporters. He said Khan has changed his mind about Islamic State in the past year.
Khan, who appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit and wearing a thick beard, was born and raised in the United States, and completed one year of college.
He lived in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook and used his income from a hardware store job to pay for his and his siblings' passports and tickets.
He left behind writings saying he was off to join Islamic State. His parents have said they were not aware of their children's' plans.
(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Bill Trott)