She called herself “Umm Nutella,” and she liked ISIS — helping recruit prospects in the United States for much of 2016 and connecting them with overseas contacts who helped with travel plans or urged domestic attacks.
She was caught, began secretly cooperating, got bail — and then illicitly recontacted her old ISIS network again last year.
Prosecutors wanted Sinmyah Amera Ceasar jailed for 30 to 50 years, but in a sign terror cases may not inspire the fear they used to, a Brooklyn federal judge on Wednesday tilted instead toward rehabilitation for the 24-year-old after an extraordinary three-day hearing this week featuring testimony from terror and threat experts along with psychologists who described horrific childhood abuse.
“You’re asking for life in prison … for a woman who has not even completely graduated from childhood,” U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, the 97-year-old dean of the Brooklyn federal court, told prosecutors. “Is it necessary to destroy this defendant in order to assure an appreciable increase in security?”
Instead of the long sentence sought by the government, Weinstein imprisoned Ceasar for 48 months — she’s already served 29 months — followed by eight years on probation with monitoring of her internet and computer usage, mandated educational training and mental health care, and a ban on association with extremists.
The sentence came after Ceasar, who said she hopes to pursue a career as an art therapist or rapper, told the judge she regretted her actions. “I was used by people who knew I was confused, vulnerable and depressed,” she read from a written statement. “I know it was wrong.”
The government, which had urged Weinstein to send a message to young people who aid the “twisted world view” of ISIS and cooperators who lie, hinted at an appeal. But Ceasar’s defense lawyers — who had requested immediate release — praised the judge for giving a break to a young woman led astray.
“It recognizes we can’t fight ISIS by not supporting our young people,” said Deirdre von Dornum. “If we don’t step in … then ISIS will step in.”
One terrorism expert said that the case reflected an incipient trend of leniency, particularly toward young people who have not engaged in violence, as the threat from ISIS appears to wane.
“There’s been a kind of nod to not destroying people’s lives and considering age as a factor in leniency,” said Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham law school’s Center on National Security. “We’ve seen some movement but it’s been slow.”
According to court papers just unsealed this week, Ceasar, of Brooklyn, served as an Islamic State recruiter for eleven months in 2016, proclaiming support for violent jihad on social media with items like a picture of President Barack Obama with a gun to his head and steering aspiring jihadis to ISIS contacts.
Her contacts, prosecutors said, included a man named Abu Isa, an external attack planner for ISIS until he was killed in a drone attack. Ceasar allegedly put an FBI undercover agent in touch with Abu Isa, who linked him to a Canadian man, who in turn supplied bomb plans for an attack on New York’s subways.
Ceasar’s plans to join ISIS overseas were interrupted in 2016 when she was arrested for conspiracy and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. She quickly pleaded guilty and began providing information about her network, and in mid-2018 was let out on bail for medical reasons.
But she immediately renewed contact with her old network — creating multiple Facebook accounts and using pseudonyms to contact at least seven extremists she had identified to the FBI, federal officials said. She later admitted deleting materials to keep from being detected, and lying to the FBI when she was rearrested.
At this week’s hearing, a government expert said Ceasar’s behavior suggested she has not fully “de-radicalized.” Just a year ago, while out on bail, she wrote on Facebook, “I didn’t do anything wrong under Islam but … got arrested for what I believe in.”
Prosecutors said that after abusing one opportunity she needed to be kept in prison for a long time. “How can she be trusted to do anything, anything that she says she’s going to do now?” said prosecutor Josh Hafetz.
Defense lawyers, however, called a psychologist who has treated Ceasar for two years, Katherine Porterfield, who told Weinstein that she was a victim of a horrific childhood that included severe sexual abuse by her father, physical abuse of her Muslim mother who died after a stay in a nursing home, abandonment by her family, a string of foster care placements and three abusive marriages to older men.
Porterfield, a specialist treating victims of torture, said Ceasar was drawn to ISIS by a misdirected longing for acceptance inside her mother’s cultural community, but had no deep commitment to the group. Her lawyers said outside of prison she could get the therapy and mentoring she needs, and succeed with a more structured program than was in place when she was out on bail.
Weinstein said that, despite contacts with the ISIS network just months ago, he believed she was “well on her way to rehabilitation” that would be impeded by a long prison term.
“This sentence,” he said, “will save her as a human being.”