A North Carolina man must stand trial in a plot to hire a hit man to behead three witnesses from his brother's terrorism case, a federal magistrate judge ruled on Friday.
Following a day-long preliminary hearing, federal Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones Jr. also ordered Shkumbin Sherifi held without bond.
Sherifi, 21, was arrested last weekend after FBI agents tracked him to a Jan. 8 meeting in the parking lot of a Wilmington Food Lion grocery store with a government informant posing as the representative of a hit man. He is accused of paying the informant $4,250 toward the first killing while his mother waited nearby in a Honda minivan.
On Jan. 22, prosecutors said Sherifi met with the informant again, this time receiving fake photos that showed the blood-covered witnesses lying in a shallow grave and what appeared to be the man's severed head.
Officials say the plot to execute the witnesses was masterminded by Sherifi's imprisoned brother, Hysen Sherifi, 27. The older Sherifi was sentenced to 45 years earlier this month for his role in what prosecutors described as a conspiracy to attack the Marine base at Quantico, Va., and targets abroad.
An FBI agent testified Sherifi left the Jan. 22 meeting with the informant and went directly to the New Hanover County Detention Center. After a meeting with his brother that was monitored by the FBI, Sherifi was arrested as he was leaving the jail with the photos in his possession.
Also arrested was Nevine Aly Elshiekh, a 46-year-old special education teacher from Raleigh who the FBI served as a go-between for the Sherifi brothers and the confidential informant, providing an initial $750 payment for the killing. Her first court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 3.
Those targeted for death, according to the government, were three confidential informants who testified against Hysen Sherifi and his co-defendants during a lengthy terrorism trial that began in shortly after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Hysen Sherifi and two other Raleigh men were found guilty of terrorism related offenses, while three other accused co-conspirators pleaded guilty.
During Friday's hearing, defense lawyer James Payne suggested that Shkumbin Sherifi may have believed that he was providing the money to pay for a lawyer for his brother's appeal and stressed that in hours of phone calls and meetings taped by the FBI he never directly ordered anyone to be killed.
Judge Jones said the government had probable cause to arrest Sherifi, questioning why anyone would hire a lawyer in a clandestine meeting held inside a car.
"We have an individual who was in a Food Lion parking lot giving someone $4,000," the judge said.
The Sherifis are naturalized U.S. citizens who emigrated from Kosovo in 1999 following a bloody sectarian war. On Friday, one of their three sisters took the stand as a character witness and asked the judge to let her brother go home. Hylja Sherifi, 24, said her younger sibling was a primary caregiver to their ailing father, who has lung cancer.
Shkumbin Sherifi has also volunteered as a youth soccer coach and is an aspiring songwriter, she said. Several of his rap songs are available online on a website intended to promote his music.
"He has a lot of passion," Hylja Sherifi said, a college student. She added that her family loves the United States.
"I have hope in the American government and support America," she said. "I supported my boyfriend when he was fighting in Iraq for 13 months."
The soldier she spoke of sat with the family in the courtroom, along with about 25 other people who made the two-hour drive from Raleigh to show their support for the defendant. Many were members of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, the city's largest mosque.
Farris Barakat, a 21-year-old college student who attended the hearing, said Elshiekh was his second-grade teacher at the mosque's school. At the time of her arrest, she was also teaching at a secular Montessori academy in suburban Morrisville. Elshiekh is charged with using interstate facilities for murder for hire.
Barakat stressed that he did not in any way support the type of violence of which the Sherifis are accused of plotting. Islam is a religion of peace, he said. However, he questioned whether an overzealous government was seeking to prosecute Muslims for terror offenses using questionable tactics, such as using paid informants with criminal records.
Hylja Sherifi echoed those sentiments, suggesting the full story had not been told in the courtroom.
Asked on the witness stand if any of the evidence presented Friday changed her positive view of her younger brother, she replied: "Not at all."
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck