A former Virginia high school student pleaded guilty on Thursday to providing material support to the Islamic State group, including recruiting another student to fight for the terror organization in Syria.
Ali Shukri Amin, 17, of Manassas, admitted in federal court in Alexandria that he conspired to help raise money, generate support, and send at least one recruit from the suburbs of northern Virginia to the war-torn Middle East to fight for the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL).
The recruit, 18-year-old Reza Niknejad, was last seen by his family on Jan. 14, when he told them he was going on a camping trip.
In reality, he was headed to the airport and a flight to Turkey, where IS supporters later confirmed his arrival in Syria.
After his departure, the family received a letter and a thumb drive with a message implying that Mr. Niknejad “did not plan to see his family again,” according to federal court documents.
In early February, Niknejad called his mother. He said he was being treated well and that he was going to “fight against these people who oppress the Muslims.”
He also told his mother that he would see her in heaven.
The case is a vivid illustration of how IS – a terror group known for beheading captured men and raping and enslaving captured women – has been able to continue to generate new recruits and support, even from within the United States.
Details of Ali’s efforts are recounted in a six-page stipulation of facts affirmed by him and entered into the court record in support of his guilty plea.
According to court documents, his conspiracy on behalf of IS began one year ago in June 2014.
Ali established a Twitter account called @AmreekiWitness and had more than 4,000 followers. He generated more than 7,000 tweets and engaged in conversations about how to use bitcoin to secretly send financial support to IS.
He also set up an AmreekiWitness page on the website ask.fm and used the page to proselytize radical Islamic ideology, offer justification for IS’s violent tactics, and provide advice for those wishing to travel to Syria to fight with IS.
He also created a pro-IS blog where he offered tips to aspiring jihadists and other IS supporters on online security techniques, including how to use encryption and anonymity software to engage in secure communications online.
Ali agreed to plead guilty to a single conspiracy count. It carries a potential maximum statutory sentence of 15 years in prison. It is not yet clear what sentence he might face under federal sentencing guidelines.
Under his plea agreement, Ali agreed to cooperate with federal investigators. In exchange, prosecutors may ask the judge to impose a lighter sentence.
US District Judge Claude Hilton accepted the plea and set sentencing for Aug. 28.
Federal officials said the case highlights how social media are being used to radicalize individuals and provide a steady flow of recruits and supporters to the Mideast-based terror group.
“Around the nation, we are seeing ISIL use social media to reach out from the other side of the world,” John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.
“Their messages are reaching America in an attempt to radicalize, recruit and incite our youth and others to support ISIL’s violent causes,” he said. “This case serves as a wake-up call that ISIL’s propaganda and recruitment materials are in your communities and being viewed by your youth.”
“This challenge requires parental and community awareness and action to confront and deter this threat wherever it surfaces,” he said.
US Attorney Dana Boente said federal investigators are targeting all levels of IS’s support structure in the US.
“Today’s guilty plea demonstrates that those who use social media as a tool to provide support and resources to ISIL will be identified and prosecuted with no less vigilance than those who travel to take up arms with ISIL,” he said.
The case is US v. Amin (15CR164).
In addition to presenting Ali’s guilty plea, prosecutors unsealed a criminal complaint against Niknejad. He is charged with conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terror organization, providing support to such a group, and conspiring to kill or injure persons in a foreign country.