SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday sentenced a California man to 15 years in prison for trying to join the Islamic State group in Syria, calling his conduct a serious threat to the U.S. and saying it was influenced by his abusive childhood and history of mental problems.
Orange County native Adam Dandach, 22, was also ordered to undergo supervised release for the rest of his life after he pleaded guilty last year to trying to provide material support to a terror group and lying on his passport application.
The case against Dandach is one in a series involving young men in states ranging from California to Georgia who have been charged with trying to assist Islamic State and other groups.
The U.S. "faces significant threat from terrorists' acts planned or committed by homegrown violent extremists like (the) defendant who become radicalized online and seek to engage in terror and support groups like ISIL," federal prosecutors wrote in court filings before sentencing.
The prosecutors had sought a 20-year sentence for Dandach, who authorities said had videos of executions and decapitations by terrorists stored on his computer. He also encouraged terrorist beliefs in online chatrooms and continued to write violent poetry even from jail, authorities said.
"To this day he is making deliberate choices to continue to support this violent and horrific terrorist organization," Celeste Corlett, an assistant U.S. attorney, said before sentencing in the Santa Ana courtroom.
U.S. District Judge James V. Selna said terrorist activity in any form is a threat to the U.S. and other countries. In court filings, Selna acknowledged Dandach's abuse at the hands of his father, history of obesity and litany of mental problems ranging from post-traumatic stress to depression.
Dandach weighed as much as 550 pounds when he was a teenager and later underwent surgery, the judge wrote. His parents divorced when he was 9.
The now-slender Dandach appeared in court wearing shackles and a tan jail jumpsuit. He exchanged fleeting looks with his mother, who sobbed throughout the hearing, and told the judge he had dissociated himself from the person he once was.
"Pardon me for my poor judgment," he said. "I believe it should be understood that I am just a hollow shell of what I used to be."
Several years ago, after Dandach's mother took his passport to keep him from traveling abroad, he lied to get a replacement — saying he had accidentally tossed out his old passport — then booked a trip for July 2014, authorities said.
He was stopped at John Wayne Airport by FBI agents who found his smartphone loaded with jihadi songs supporting Islamic State fighters, maps of areas the group controlled, and Twitter updates on fighting by the terrorist group.
Dandach told agents he planned to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and train with weapons to defend himself, authorities said.
After the hearing, defense lawyer Pal Lengyel-Leahu said he thought the sentence was harsh given Dandach's childhood and age. He said his client had found a purpose to his life in religion and aimed to travel to a place where people shared his beliefs and do charity work, not violence.
He said Dandach is a "gentle sort of kid" who has been deeply upset by Islamic State's killing of innocent people since his arrest.
"Any action that involves killing or threatening civilians, he is adamantly opposed, and he says very clearly, 'It is not in the Quran and it's not Islamic,'" Lengyel-Leahu told reporters outside the courthouse. "He recognizes completely what's going on over there is not what he was sold."