A Chicago-area teen who tried to fly to Syria to join ISIS is sorry for his actions, but pleas for mercy did not sway a judge, who gave him the maximum sentence for his crime.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi was 18 when he decided to fly to Syria to join ISIS and their war on Syrian citizens. He never had the chance to leave, having been arrested by the FBI in a sting to catch aspiring terrorists in the United States. He apologized for his actions, even thanked government agents for “saving his life” by stopping him from joining ISIS.
Now 23, Tounisi’s lawyers had hoped he would get off with a sentence of only 7 years. U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, however, told him during his sentencing that he “chose to become a villain” and sentenced him to the maximum allowed by law: 15 years in federal prison.
This was not Tounisi’s first attempt to become a terrorist. Federal agents learned that he once tried to join an al-Qaeda affiliate, and in another instance, tried to help a friend build a bomb to detonate at a teen club in the Chicago area. That plot put him on the FBI’s radar, and he was eventually arrested after trying to fly to Syria to join ISIS.
Federal prosecutors sought the maximum sentence, even though they admit that Tounisi appeared to regret his actions. The judge agreed the max sentence was necessary, and said he would have sentenced him to a longer term if the law had allowed.
“Mr Tounisi, at your age you traded the opportunity to attend college for a terrorist training camp” said Judge Der-Yeghiayan. He continued, “you could have studied to find a cure for cancer.”
The judge said that he would give “no free passes” when it comes to terrorism and that Tounisi could have chosen to become a hero in life but instead “chose to become a villain.”
The teenager’s road to perdition began in 2013 when he tried to join al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria, authorities said. That move came after he allegedly tried to help his friend, Adel Daoud, engineer a bombing here a year earlier.
Tounisi would later step away from the plot, but his fate had been sealed. He was grabbed by federal agents at O’Hare Airport in April 2013 on a trip to Syria.
Another defense attorney, Patrick Blegen, said during Thursday’s sentencing hearing that “not every terrorism is the same. He had no intention on returning to the United States because of belief he was going to be killed there [Syria.]”
But assistant U.S. attorney Barry Jonas also urged the judge to show mercy, explaining that Tounisi is “extremely remorseful, contrite.” Prosecutor Jonas said that Tounisi had thought up a sentencing idea for himself: helping the community by talking with youth about not getting involved in terrorism.
“He could be fooling me” said Jonas. “He could be a great actor but I’ve been doing this long enough,” saying he believed that he really wanted to help out.
Tounisi himself addressed the court before the judge imposed sentence. “First, I apologize to my family, especially my parents for all the pain and suffering that I put them though. I love all of you,” he said.
“Secondly I apologize to the government for all the money and effort they spent on this case…. I say thank you. Thank you for saving my life.”
Judge Der-Yeghiayan said that nothing can excuse the seriousness of the crime. “Such terrorism is a threat to the very existence of this great nation” he said and continued, saying that it was “an extremely serious crime, I would rank it at the top.”
After serving more than four years in the federal lock-up so far, Tounisi could be released in about 8 years. According to the sentence, he will then be on supervised release for the rest of his life.
Here is a news report covering Tounisi’s initial arrest.
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