A Pennsylvania man pleaded guilty Tuesday to using the Internet to promote terror attacks against American military and civilian targets in posts he made on an Islamic extremist web forum he moderated. He also pleaded guilty to having a loaded pistol when he allegedly bit two FBI agents who tried to question him.
Emerson Begolly, 22, faces a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison on the weapons charge and up to 10 years on the one count of solicitation to commit a crime of violence. The weapons charge carries a maximum of life in prison, though it's extremely unusual for a defendant to plead guilty if such a sentence is on the table. A recommended sentence has been agreed upon, but it remains under seal, according to prosecutors and Begolly's federal public defender.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Maurice Cohill Jr. ordered Begolly to remain jailed until he is sentenced Nov. 29.
Wearing maroon scrubs from the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, where Begolly told the judge he's being treated by a psychiatrist, the lanky, soft-spoken man nonetheless told the judge he entered the pleas, "Because I am guilty," without further explanation.
Begolly has been jailed since he allegedly bit two FBI agents who approached him in a parked car while others searched his divorced parents' Pittsburgh-area homes on Jan. 4 while investigating his Internet activities.
He was indicted by a federal grand jury in Virginia last month on charges he encouraged terror attacks on public buildings and military facilities, transportation systems, cell phone towers, water plants, synagogues, Jewish schools and other targets in the United States on posts to the Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum.
Begolly also posted comments praising a series of overnight shootings targeting the Pentagon, the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., and other government-related buildings last October saying, "God willing someone had acted on his solicitations," Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kitchen told the judge.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton of Pittsburgh couldn't say whether the former Marine charged in those shootings was aware of Begolly's posts, or whether anyone has committed violence at Begolly's urging, saying this investigating was more about being "proactive."
"It is the top priority of the entire government, and particularly the Department of Justice, to protect Americans from attack," Hickton said. Special Agent-in-Charge Michael Rodriguez of the Pittsburgh FBI office added, "I'm quite satisfied that we've protected the public interest in this instance."
Begolly was living with his father in Mayport, about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, when agents searched that residence and the home of his mother, who was cooperating with the FBI, about 20 miles northeast of the city in January. The FBI seized several weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle _ though it was later determined Begolly and his father legally owned them _ as well as computers Begolly used in both homes.
The agents said Begolly bit them and reached for the 9mm pistol hidden in a military field jacket when they approached his mother's car, where he sat while she went inside a fast-food restaurant as part of a prearranged plan with the agents.
Marketa Sims, the public defender, has argued that Begolly responded violently only because he has a form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome, which was aggravated by FBI agents sneaking up on him and the fact that his mother told him his grandmother was gravely ill _ a ruse designed to enable her to pick him up at his father's house that day. Sims declined to comment on the case because of the sealed plea agreement.
A federal magistrate in Pittsburgh had previously ordered Begolly to remain jailed pending trial after agents testified about some of Begolly's web postings _ which later became the basis for charges filed in Virginia _ and showed the magistrate terror "training" videos in which Begolly fired the assault rifle at various targets while wearing military fatigues.
Agents previously testified that Begolly posted pro-terrorist songs and poems and chatted online with at least two other Americans being prosecuted for terrorism, including Colleen LaRose, an eastern Pennsylvania woman who dubbed herself Jihad Jane in a YouTube video that caught the FBI's attention in 2009. LaRose pleaded guilty in February to agreeing to try to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had offended Muslims, and she faces a life sentence.
Although prosecutors don't know if anyone was inspired to commit violence by Begolly, they said Tuesday his actions when arrested mirrored comments in which he admonished other would-be terrorists to carry weapons and not let themselves be taken alive.
"Anything is fair, including trying to bite off fingers," Kitchen said, referring to a related post. Begolly also expressed willingness to "die for Allah ... because it was the most worthy cause to die for."
U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride of Alexandria, Va., prosecuted the terror solicitation charge before it was transferred to Pittsburgh for Tuesday's hearing.
He said in a statement, "Jihadist propaganda on the Internet is a serious threat to our safety and today's plea is the latest example of our Office's efforts to aggressively identify and prosecute homegrown terrorists."