A former Ivy League student from Brooklyn who joined the Islamic State in Syria in 2014, then repented, was given a probationary sentence Thursday in Brooklyn federal court after telling the judge his time with the terror group was a big mistake.
“I wanted good and I saw nothing but evil,” the man, identified in court papers as “John Doe,” now in his late 20s, told U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein.
The man came from Bangladesh as a 1-year-old. Prosecutors credited him with making his way out of Syria, surrendering to American authorities and providing valuable cooperation against the terror group, as well as working to persuade other potential recruits to change course.
He served 21 months in prison after surrendering and more jail time would run the risk of leaving him “embittered,” the judge said, imposing a 10-year term of probation instead, in line with a recommendation for leniency from prosecutors who praised his conversion.
“I don’t think incarceration is required, but long-term supervised release is because of the danger you pose,” Weinstein said. “I think it will protect the general public more than a long or lifetime of incarceration. . . . In my opinion you will be doing much more for society with the sentence imposed.”
The man pleaded guilty to providing material support to the Islamic State, and receiving military training from a terrorist organization, and could have faced up to 25 years in prison. At a Wednesday hearing, Weinstein heard from experts about signs that a terrorist conversion is sincere.
Before imposing sentence, Weinstein had a lengthy back-and-forth with the man, who described himself as being emotionally adrift in 2014 after a pregnant sister had died, and then deeply upset when he saw a movie in a Columbia University class showing a nude woman in a transparent burqa, the conservative dress his sister had worn.
“It was just heartbreaking to see that,” the man said, explaining that he became isolated, left school, and started exploring Islam on the internet. His contact with radical websites led to a visit by federal agents, he said, and then he made a sudden decision to flee to Syria to avoid arrest and try to find the “ideal Islamic society” he craved.
“It was literally stupid,” the defendant told Weinstein, explaining he soon realized the group’s leaders were “liars” who didn’t follow Islamic principles and began looking for a way out.
“I had a feeling of complete hopelessness,” he said. “I saw desert. Endless desert. I thought, ‘Where am I.’ ”
He only stayed a few months prosecutors said, and avoided engaging in any violence, secretly contacting the FBI while he was still in Syria, and then sneaking into Turkey where he contacted U.S. officials and quickly provided information about the Islamic State.
He has earned a college degree since his return, and made a TV appearance to tell his story as a way of discouraging others from following his path. When Weinstein asked why the man decided to cooperate, he said, “I grew up here. I grew up with good people.”
Weinstein ordered the defendant to be under strict supervision by probation officials for at least two years and subject to monitoring of his internet activities as well as other conditions.