ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A 17-year-old who otherwise would have been graduating with honors from high school this week instead pleaded guilty Thursday to terrorism charges for helping another teen travel to Syria to join the Islamic State.
Ali Shukri Amin of Manassas pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. In addition to helping 18-year-old Reza Niknejad of Prince William County travel to Syria, Amin also admitted using Twitter and other social media to solicit donations and support for the Islamic State.
Before his arrest, Amin was an honor student at Osbourn Park High School. The teen, who now faces up to 15 years in prison, appeared in court Thursday in a blue jumpsuit from Northern Neck Regional Jail.
Juveniles rarely face charges in the federal system, and the case remained under seal for several months while prosecutors navigated the process to have the charges moved into adult court.
Amin admitted helping Niknejad travel to Syria to in January. Court documents indicate that after taking Niknejad to the airport, Amin delivered a letter and thumb drive from Niknejad to his family's mailbox informing them that they would likely never see him again and claiming he traveled to Saudi Arabia to study Islam.
Court documents say that beginning in September, Amin began efforts to convert Niknejad, who was born in Tehran, Iran, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen at age 6, to a radical form of Islam. The court documents indicate Amin referred to Niknejad as "ex-Shia" in his contacts facilitating Niknejad's travel — the Islamic State organization is dominated by Sunni extremists.
Amin used code words online, substituting "Syracuse" for "Syria" and "basketball" for "jihad."
Charges against Niknejad were unsealed Thursday in Alexandria, alleging he conspired to provide material support to terrorists and conspired to kill and injure people abroad. He is still believed to be in Syria.
Amin also admitted to using Twitter to provide advice and encouragement to the Islamic State and its supporters, according to a statement of facts filed with the plea agreement. Through his Twitter handle AmreekiWitness — Amreeki translates to "American" — Amin provided instruction on how to use Bitcoin, a virtual currency, to mask funds going to the group and helped supporters seeking to travel to Syria to fight with the group, court documents said.
Amin garnered more than 4,000 followers on Twitter and also wrote a blog for aspiring jihadists. Among other things, Amin advocates for establishing a website for distributing Islamic State press releases and used his Twitter feed to persuade others to help develop such a site, according to court records.
FBI Assistant Director Andrew McCabe said the case illustrates the danger of online propaganda. He said Amin was "brought into this seductive, destructive ideology by the material he consumed online." Authorities said Amin was a sophisticated user of social media and that he also helped people make anonymous financial contributions to the Islamic State using Bitcoin.
Defense lawyer Joseph Flood said Amin was motivated by sincere religious beliefs and outrage at the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"It's part of the modern era of the Internet," Flood said. "Sometimes people feel frustrated in their inability to effect change against a government committing atrocities. ... He was blogging on the Internet. It's as simple as that."
Flood said it was extremely unusual for a minor to be prosecuted in federal court on terrorism charges and that he had difficulty finding legal precedent.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente said there have been similar cases before but acknowledged charging a 17-year-old as an adult in federal court is unusual.
"These are always really difficult decisions," Boente said. "Something we take very seriously into consideration is the age of the defendant. At the end of the day, it becomes a matter of public safety."
Boente and McCabe, at a press conference after the plea hearing, took pains to say Amin was not prosecuted for First Amendment expressions of sympathy and devotion to the Islamic State. The line is crossed, they said, when words spill over into deeds.
"We do not investigate based on First Amendment activity alone," McCabe said.
Amin's mother was in court Thursday but declined comment.
Amin will be sentenced Aug. 28. The plea deal calls for automatic application of a terrorism enhancement to the sentencing guidelines that would likely place his recommended sentence at the 15-year maximum. But the judge is not bound by the recommendation, and prosecutors are free to recommend less.
Authorities say Amin has been cooperating and providing information to investigators since his arrest.