A 17-year old suburban Virginia teenager was sentenced to 11 years in prison for providing material support to Islamic State.
Ali Amin of suburban Washington, D.C., ran a pro-Islamic State Twitter account and assisted one of his friends in traveling to Syria in order to join ISIS. In June, he pled guilty to the terrorism charge, after cooperating with investigators. “I made my decisions, and I am prepared to bear their fullest consequences,” he said.
The 11-year sentence was less than the 15 years the prosecution asked for. The judge cited the age and lack of a previous criminal record as factors in giving the lesser sentence.
By prosecutors’ account, Amin was an active, sophisticated Islamic State supporter whose efforts not only bolstered the terrorist group’s online propaganda machine but also sent them a real-life fighter. By his own side’s telling, he was little more than a troubled kid who lost himself while seeking acceptance and respect in a sinister, virtual world.
Joe Flood, Amin’s attorney, said he was “disappointed” with the severity of the penalty but “heartened” that the judge showed some mercy. U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said the punishment “sends a serious message that these crimes are extremely harmful to the community, and they’re going to be dealt with harshly.”
Both sides asserted that the case is yet another chilling example of the Islamic State’s ability to woo American youth online: U.S. authorities have accused more than 60 people across the country of being involved in Islamic State activities. Amin’s case is, in ways, emblematic of the phenomenon and, in other ways, uniquely tragic.
Born in Sudan, Amin came to the United States with his mother before he was 2 and later became a naturalized citizen, according to letters, medical records and other materials his attorney submitted to the court.
Life in the United States was not always easy. Amin, who grew up largely in Northern Virginia, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a boy, and the condition was so severe that he would sometimes vomit in front of classmates at school. He was close to his mother — she wrote that he slept in bed with her until about age 13 — but their relationship was also tense at times.
When his mother remarried, Amin became disconnected from many of the extended family members he considered his friends, letters and records show.
In his teenage years, Amin became upset about what he perceived as atrocities against Muslims in the Middle East and set out on a quest, mostly online, to learn more about his faith, according to the letters and records. He did well academically, even getting into the rigorous academic program at the Governor’s School @ Innovation Park. But when health problems drove him out of the program in early 2014, he began spending more time on the Internet. By the time his parents checked his activities, he was communicating with people who seemed to be older Islamic State supporters.
Authorities said they were tipped off to Amin’s communication with Islamic State supporters in February 2014; his mother wrote that the family, at the advice of a religious leader, reached out to law enforcement later that year. Even with FBI agents closing in on him, though, Amin successfully connected a friend, 18-year-old Reza Niknejad, with Islamic State supporters abroad and helped the older teen travel to Syria.
Is this a tragedy? Or just desserts? An intelligent, troubled young man who apparently radicalized himself while searching for his Muslim roots goes over to the dark side and looks to radicalize others, succeeding in at least one instance. He knew what he was doing was wrong. He advocated murdering innocents, and urged his followers to go to war against everything his adopted country stood for.
On the other hand, there is the fact of his youth, his hardly-influential Twitter account with only 4,000 followers, and his idiot (incestuous?) mother who slept with him until he was 13 years old.
I think we were lucky to catch this kid when we did. Think of a bright young man with an engineering degree placed in service to Islamic State where his skills could have caused a lot of bloodshed. Left to his own devices, he may have even decided to carry out jihad in America some day.
So 11 years sounds about right, as does the judge’s instructions after he leaves jail. He “also imposed a lifetime of supervised release and monitoring of Amin’s Internet activities after he leaves prison.” This won’t deradicalize him, but it is likely to prevent him from causing any more trouble.
This was hardly a “tragedy.” But when you consider the young man’s obvious gifts, it’s a sad commentary on how Islamic State can ruin lives.