Chicago-area ISIL sympathizer catches break from Feds
This undated passport photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago shows Mohammed Hamzah Khan.
CHICAGO — A 21-year-old suburban Chicago man was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison Friday for his failed attempt to travel to Syria to join Islamic State fighters.
Mohammed Hamzah Khan, a U.S.-born college student from Bolingbrook, Ill., caught a relatively light sentence because he'sprovided U.S. authorities with important information in other terrorism probes. He told FBI agents he planned to travel to Syria with his two younger teenage siblings before they were stopped in October 2014 at O’Hare International Airport, where they were set to catch a plane to Turkey en route to Syria.
Khan faced up to 15 years in prison on the charge of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization under sentencing guidelines. Federal prosecutors, however, sought only a five-year prison term for Khan because he had been cooperative in helping agents build cases against other suspects who have tried to join or recruit on behalf of the terror group also known by acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
U.S. District Judge John Tharp Jr. ultimately decided to sentence Khan to an even shorter sentence requested by Khan's defense attorney, Thomas Durkin, who argued that the additional 20 months in prison requested by prosecutors would not serve as a deterrant and could cloud Khan's chances for rehabilitation.
"Nothing can expose the moral depravity that is ISIS than to contrast its barbarity with a very high standard of civilized behavior," Tharp told Khan after sentencing him.
Khan provided federal agents with four extensive debriefings, amounting to nearly 20 hours of questioning, according to the prosecutors’ pre-sentencing report. He specifically provided U.S. authorities with information about two terror suspects.
One of those suspects—identified in court documents as Individual 1—is now believed to be dead, according to court documents. Khan exchanged online communications with Individual 1 in the months prior to his attempt to leave the U.S. to join ISIS.
Khan also has provided authorities with information on a second terror suspect—identified as Individual 2 in court documents.
Individual 2, an alleged ISIL fighter and recruiter, has not yet been charged. But the government says it plans on using Khan, if their case against Individual 2 proceeds.
“Khan’s information concerning Individual 2 is particularly valuable insofar as Khan recalled details about Individual 2 that will likely be helpful in establishing proof of identity,” assistant U.S. attorneys Matthew Hiller and Sean Driscoll wrote.
Prosecutors say that Khan was introduced to Individual 1 by Avin Marsalis Brown, a radicalized U.S. citizen who was arrested in March 2014 as he set to travel from Raleigh, N.C. to Turkey before heading to Syria to join ISIL.
Khan and Brown, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization, met online and corresponded about their mutual desire to travel overseas to fight for ISIL. Brown was sentenced in July to 92 months in prison.
Prosecutors also say that Khan communicated online with Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, a Muslim activist based in the United Kingdom who was convicted earlier this year for encouraging support for ISIL. Khan offered to testify against Rahman, but his testimony was ultimately not needed. Rahman was the right-hand man of Anjem Choudary, a former leader of the banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, who was also convicted of encouraging support for the Islamic State.
After Khan’s arrest, FBI Agents recovered a letter to Khan's parents explaining his planned travel and asking that they not contact authorities. Agents said they also found a notebook used by Khan with words and symbols referring to ISIL.
"FIRST and FOREMOST, PLEASE MAKE SURE TO NOT TELL THE AUTHORITIES For if this were to happen it will jeopardize not only the safety of us but our family as well," the letter addressed to Khan's parents said.
He also said he was distressed at having to pay taxes that would support the killing of his "Muslim brothers and sisters," Khan invited his family "to join me in the Islamic State.”
Khan and his two siblings, who were not prosecuted, are among at least 250 individuals from the U.S. who have joined or attempted to join ISIL in Syria or otherwise support the group, according to a House Homeland Security Committee task force report.
With credit good behavior, Khan could be released sometime next summer. His family said he plans to return to college once he completes his prison sentence.
Earlier this week, a federal judge in Minneapolis sentenced nine young men from Minnesota’s large Somali community who took part in a conspiracy to travel to Syria to join ISIL. The suspects in the Minnesota case received sentences ranging from time served to 35 years in prison.
Durkin called the disparity in sentencings in ISIL-related prosecutions absurd.
"What we don't seem to understand is that you can't fight wars in the criminal justice system, and that's what we're doing" Durkin said.
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