A U.S. citizen accused of attempting to join an al-Qaeda ally in Syria was ordered confined to his parents’ home with electronic monitoring while he awaits trial.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi of Aurora, Illinois, about 42 miles west of Chicago, was arrested at O’Hare International Airport on April 19 as he was about to board a plane bound for Istanbul with plans to travel on to Syria, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation statement.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel G. Martin in Chicago today denied the U.S. government’s request to continue holding Tounisi, who has been in custody since his arrest.
“It’s a very close issue,” Martin said, adding that Tounisi was entitled to a presumption of innocence.
His release was delayed until tomorrow to afford prosecutors time to challenge the decision and for installation of a land-line telephone at his parents’ house.
Randall Samborn, a spokesman for acting Chicago U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro, said in an e-mailed statement that prosecutors would appeal Martin’s ruling to U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang tomorrow.
Tounisi, 18, is charged with a single count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group. He faces as long as 15 years in prison if convicted.
Martin today rejected Assistant U.S. Attorney William Ridgway’s argument that the teen was a flight risk and a danger to the community in spite of his youth.
“We should not underestimate him and his commitment,” to engaging in violent jihad, or holy war, the prosecutor said. “People very young can do terrible things.”
Molly Armour, Tounisi’s lawyer, countered that her client was bereft of money and bound to his family, friends and neighbors, gesturing to about 30 people who turned out to support him and occupied courtroom benches behind her.
“He is beholden to the whole community that is here today,” she said, arguing for Tounisi’s release into his father’s custody.
Tounisi was close friends with an Illinois man charged last year with an attempted bombing in Chicago, the FBI said in its April 20 statement.
Adel Daoud, 19, was arrested in September in an FBI sting operation during which he allegedly tried to detonate a phony bomb given to him by an undercover U.S. agent as an act of violent jihad.
Daoud pleaded not guilty in October to charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to damage or destroy a building with an explosive. His attorney, Thomas A. Durkin, told reporters Daoud was the victim of a set- up. Daoud remains in U.S. custody.
While Tounisi didn’t participate in Daoud’s bombing attempt, he helped in the early planning, according to the affidavit of FBI Special Agent Dwayne W. Golomb filed with the criminal charging papers.
“Tounisi apparently decided against participating in the attack, in part because he believed the UC was associated with law enforcement,” Golomb wrote, using UC as an abbreviation for the FBI’s undercover agent.
The FBI said Tounisi was traveling to Syria to join a jihadist militant group operating inside the country. He allegedly conducted Internet research on Jabhat al-Nusrah, listed by the U.S. State Department as an alias for al-Qaeda in Iraq, a designated foreign terrorist organization.
He disclosed his travel plans to a person he believed to be a Jabhat al-Nusrah online recruiter who was actually working for the FBI, according to the government. Tounisi had found that person through a website created by the bureau.
While Tounisi bought his plane ticket to Istanbul, the undercover agent made arrangements for him to travel by bus to Gaziantep, near the Turkish border, where Tounisi was told he’d be met by a “brother,” and taken to an entry point on the Syrian frontier, Golomb said.
Watched by the FBI as he cleared airport security on the evening of April 19, Tounisi was arrested after allegedly telling customs agents he was traveling to Turkey for sightseeing and had no plans to visit any other country.
Ridgway today told Martin Tounisi wasn’t deterred by Daoud’s arrest or by his father’s admonishment to his son that he would not die a martyr in battle, rather he would “die as roadkill.”
The law presumes Tounisi’s entitlement to bail, Armour told the judge. She also said her client abandoned Daoud’s plan because he didn’t want to participate in anything that would harm his community.
“He’s charged with attempting to leave the community, not harm it,” Armour said.
Before ruling, Martin asked the teen if he understood what was going on before him.
“Yes,” the slightly-built Tounisi replied quietly.
“I wonder if you understand the seriousness of this,” the judge said moments later.
He had the teen’s father, Ahmad, 49, swear under oath that he would report any violation of his son’s release terms.
In ordering Tounisi’s confinement, Martin said failure to abide by that directive could trigger a $50,000 obligation.
“You’re not allowed to leave,” he said.
The case is U.S. v. Tounisi, 13-cr-00328, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).
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