WASHINGTON — A Virginia honor student pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to charges that he supported the Islamic State’s recruitment campaign in the U.S. The 17-year-old, one of the youngest Americans to face such terrorism-related charges, is the latest example of the growing influence of ISIL among youth in America.
Ali Shukri Amin acknowledged assisting in the radicalization of an 18-year-old friend, Reza Niknejad and aiding Niknejad’s travel overseas earlier this year to join ISIL’s ranks in Syria.
Amin also established a Twitter account, amassing thousands of followers, used to instruct prospective jihadis on how to mask financial contributions to ISIL by using the virtual currency Bitcoin, according to court documents.
Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, who oversees the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said the case underscores ISIL’s continuing social media effort to draw U.S. sympathizers to its cause, snagging ever-younger recruits.
“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,” Carlin said. “This challenge requires parental and community awareness and action to confront and deter this threat wherever it surfaces.”
In court documents outlining Amin’s admitted activities, prosecutors said Amin used his Twitter account, webpage and pro-ISIL blog to “proselytize his radical Islamic ideology, justify and defend ISIL’s violent practices and to provide advice on topics such as jihadists travel to fight with ISIL.”
“On his blog,” prosecutors said, “the defendant authored a series of highly technical articles targeted at aspiring jihadists and ISIL supporters detailing the use of security measures in online communications to include the use of encryption and anonymity software.”
Perhaps the most consequential of Amin’s actions centered on the assistance he provided to Niknejad. Starting in September, according to court documents, Amin “began an effort to convert (Niknejad) to a radical form of Islam.”
By December, Amin had arranged an overseas contact to provide travel instructions for his friend. The next month, Niknejad boarded a Turkish Airlines flight to begin a journey that ended with his successful crossing into Syria.
After Niknejad’s departure, Amin acknowledged delivering a letter to his friend’s family, which indicated that Niknejad, who also has been charged with terror support, “did not plan to see his family again.”
Before leaving, Niknejad had told his family he was embarking on a “camping trip.”
Amin’s attorney, Joseph Flood, said the actions of his client, a devout Muslim, were part of a “sincere belief” that the current Syrian regime had committed atrocities. At the same time, Flood said, Amin’s behavior is “a reflection of his … immaturity, social isolation and frustration at the ineffectiveness of non-violent means for opposing a criminal regime.”
“Mr. Amin has taken responsibility as an adult for his actions as a child,” the attorney said in a written statement.
Flood described his young client as a committed student and a volunteer in his Manassas, Va.-area community whose behavior “does not reflect his values or his true character.”
Amin, Flood said, had been planning to enter college in the fall to pursue academic interests that included science, technology and robotics.
“Mr. Amin deeply regrets having allowed himself and his faith to become entangled in criminal offenses and causing his family and community pain,” Flood said, adding that his client has been cooperating with federal investigators.
Amin faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 28.
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