Three days before a Long Island teenager who had converted to Islam was arrested by federal agents on terrorism charges, an undercover agent talked with him about alternatives to violent jihad. The teen didn't have to fly to Yemen as he planned. He could change his mind.
"I want to let you know for the last time . . . if you don't want to do this, you don't have to, you know?" the agent explained, according to a court transcript. "I'm not going to be mad [and other members of al-Qaida are] not going to be mad. Nobody is going to be mad at you. And you could do . . . those other ways . . . [to] serve God the almighty."
The teen, Justin Kaliebe, 18, who lived in Bay Shore and Babylon, remained unconvinced. He said he would board that flight.
"I understand there's a way out, but for me, the only way out is martyrdom. . . . God the almighty prescribed this for me," he said, according to the transcript.
Kaliebe's conversation with the agent is contained in court records that detail his arrest on Jan. 21 on terrorism charges as he was about to board a flight to Yemen. He pleaded guilty in February, telling U.S. Magistrate A. Kathleen Tomlinson he wanted to join an al-Qaida affiliate in that country. "I and others discussed different ways we could support such a group . . . by providing money, equipment and ourselves," he said in court in Central Islip.
Evaluation orderedSpatt has ordered a mental competency evaluation be conducted at the federal prison hospital in Butner, N.C., where Kaliebe is being held. If psychiatrists find Kaliebe mentally competent, he will be sentenced by Spatt in September. He faces up to 30 years in prison, unless the court determines that there are mitigating circumstances that would call for a lesser sentence.
The teen's family, and the imam of the Bay Shore mosque where Kaliebe worshiped, say the federal government has him all wrong. Family members say Kaliebe is autistic and has a history since early childhood of being "a loner" who had difficulty making friends, was unusually quiet and stayed by himself.
Kaliebe was first diagnosed with autism at 4 and didn't comprehend what he was doing, said one of his attorneys, Anthony La Pinta of Hauppauge.
"This case must be put into proper prospective," said La Pinta, who joined the defense team after the guilty plea. "Justin Kaliebe is a gentle, naive, autistic teenager who has the limited ability to fully understand the magnitude and seriousness of his actions. He clearly poses no threat to anyone."
Kaliebe's father, Robert Kaliebe, and his grandfather, Caesar Milazzo, both of Bay Shore, said in a joint interview that even before the diagnosis, Kaliebe was treated by psychiatrists and psychologists because of his difficulties in relating to people and lack of appropriate social skills, compounded by a lisp and physical awkwardness.
Both father and grandfather said they were surprised that the teen could get to the airport by himself to fly to Yemen. He was arrested at Kennedy Airport, where he was about to board the plane.
Beginning at age 4, he was enrolled in special education classes or had additional teachers and counseling, his father and grandfather said.
Although his son was raised Catholic, Robert Kaliebe said he was relieved when the youth was befriended by Muslim children he met at school two or three years ago. It was the first time "he had found friends," Kaliebe said of his son.
Converting to IslamAfter meeting Muslim friends, Kaliebe became involved in the Masjid Darul Qur'an mosque in Bay Shore, learned Arabic and converted to Islam about a year and a half ago, the father said. Robert Kaliebe said he met with the mosque's imam, Abdul Jabbar, to make sure his son was being properly supervised, and the teen spoke enthusiastically of how he and other young people were doing charitable work.
Kaliebe's father, grandfather and Jabbar said the teen never discussed any radical ideas or thoughts or hung out with anyone who seemed violent.
"He would never hurt a fly," Kaliebe's father said.
Kaliebe's case became public two weeks ago at a hearing in Central Islip. At the hearing, Kaliebe's attorneys asked that his mental state be evaluated by psychiatrists before he is sentenced.
Kaliebe's father and mother divorced when their son was 5. Sources familiar with the family situation said they were devoted to their son. Jabbar said Kaliebe had turned to Islam and the mosque as a solution to his personal problems.
"He was one of our youngest members here," Jabbar said. "He desperately wanted to relocate from his home and be adopted. He wanted us to keep him here and I told him we couldn't do that."
With Fausto Giovanny Pinto