Mohammed Hamzah Khan had just been sentenced to a little more than three years in prison Friday for trying to fly overseas to join the Islamic State terrorism group when the judge told him to pay close attention to the way he’d just been treated under U.S. law.
Though Khan had faced up to 15 years behind bars, he’d instead been given a remarkable second chance, U.S. District Judge John Tharp said. He was afforded his right to counsel, his family and friends were allowed to support him in court and federal authorities had agreed to provide resources for years to come to get his life back on track.
It was the opposite of what he would have faced under Islamic State’s brand of justice, Tharp said.
“Instead of a public beheading, you’ve been given a public trial proceeding,” Tharp said at the conclusion of a two-hour hearing. “The enemy government has not tried to kill you. It has tried to help you.”
Khan, 21, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and black skull cap and sporting a thick, dark beard, showed no reaction as the judge handed down the sentence of 40 months in prison. Khan has already been in custody for two years, and with good behavior he’d be eligible for release in August when he plans to enroll in college.
By all accounts, it was an extremely lenient sentence for a conviction of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. But it came with a creative twist: In addition to the prison time, the judge ordered Khan to remain under court supervision for at least 20 years after his release, one of the longest periods of government monitoring ever ordered in Chicago’s federal court.
Under the deal, which was crafted after months of negotiation between prosecutors and Khan’s attorneys, Khan must seek “psychological and violent extremism counseling,” perform at least 120 hours of community service each year he’s under supervision and allow court personnel to search his cellphone, email and computer without a warrant.
After court, Khan’s father thanked the judge, the FBI and prosecutors “for what they have decided for our son.”
“We are very excited for his future,” Shafi Khan said in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.
The sentencing brought an end to a case that garnered national headlines in October 2014, when Khan, then 19, was arrested at O’Hare International Airport as he tried to board a jet to Vienna with a connection to Istanbul. Traveling with Khan were his sister, then 17, and 16-year-old brother, who were both questioned at the airport by the FBI but were not charged.
Khan’s arrest came as U.S. national security and counterterrorism officials were voicing growing concern over radicalized Americans traveling overseas to join Islamic State, which at the time was seizing large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and committing high-profile beheadings of journalists, aid workers and other captives.
According to his plea agreement, Khan and his sister had been talking online with Islamic State members in Syria who offered to help them get to the Middle East to join the terrorist organization. Khan admitted plotting to travel to Turkey so the contact could guide him and his siblings across the border, according to the reports.
To fund the trip, Khan got a job as a stock clerk at a Menards store in July 2014. By September, he had saved enough to buy three round-trip tickets for himself and his siblings at a cost of $2,679, according to his plea agreement.
Khan told agents he expected his position with Islamic State to be “some type of public service, a police force, humanitarian work or a combat role,” according to the charges. Notes left by the siblings for their parents — who were not aware of the plot — begged them not to tell law enforcement.
As he had argued previously, Khan’s lawyer, Thomas Anthony Durkin, told the judge Friday that Kahn was a “naive and foolish” teenager who fell victim to the Islamic State’s slick offers to become a part of something bigger than himself. Durkin said Khan’s main goal was to join an Islamic caliphate and live according to Muslim doctrine, not fight a holy war against the U.S.
But the judge said he didn’t think “for a second” that Khan believed he was going to work as a chef or some other civilian job once he arrived in Syria or that Islamic State “was an organization that would respect that kind of wish from an able-bodied 20-year-old.”
“Mr. Khan set off to join and aid a terrorist organization that believes it is appropriate, indeed believes it is holy, to kill anyone who disagrees with its religious dogma,” Tharp said.
Khan’s family emigrated from India but has lived in the Chicago suburbs for many years, according to Durkin. Khan was born in the United States, graduated from high school and attended one year at Benedictine University in Lisle. He has no prior criminal history.
Since his arrest, Khan has provided ongoing cooperation in other terrorism cases, sitting with prosecutors for four extensive debriefings totaling more than 20 hours on the recruitment tactics used by Islamic State, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Hiller.
The information he provided helped build cases against an Islamic State fighter and recruiters — one who died before he could be charged and another who remains under investigation. He also offered to testify in the recent prosecution in Great Britain of Islamic State recruiter Mizanur Rahman, but ultimately it was decided his testimony was unnecessary, prosecutors said in a recent filing.
Khan faced up to 15 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors agreed to ask for a five-year prison term given his cooperation with law enforcement.
When offered the chance to speak in court Friday, Khan declined, saying, “Yeah, I don’t wish to make any statements right now.”
In his closing remarks, the judge urged Khan to take advantage of the break that had been given to him by a court system that treated him with compassion and respect.
“Nothing can better expose the moral depravity that is ISIS than to contrast its barbarity with the very high standard of civilized behavior,” Tharp said.