A Northern Virginia teen was sentenced Friday to 136 months in prison for helping another teenager travel to Syria to join the Islamic State and providing other aid to the militant group.
Seventeen-year-old Ali Shukri Amin had faced up to 15 years in prison. His sentence of 136 months comes out to 11 years and approximately four months. Amin also faces a lifetime of probation and monitoring of his online activity.
He pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists in June -- around the same time he would have otherwise been graduating from high school with honors.
Almost two dozen relatives and friends, including two imams, were there in support as Amin was sentenced Friday in federal court in Alexandria. Juveniles rarely face charges in the federal system.
Amin's attorney, Joseph Flood, argued for a sentence of six years, citing Amin's age and complete cooperation with investigators. He said there was no evidence Amin tried to radicalize anyone other than his friend, 18-year-old Reza Niknejad of Prince William County.
"The fact that after eight months of investigating the government can only find he influenced Reza Niknejad shows his influence was actually very small," Flood said.
Flood argued Niknejad had his own reason for going to Syria.
Amin's attorney also argued his client's extensive cooperation should win him leniency.
"Even one month before he was arrested he met with the FBI and began to provide hours of information with no promise of benefit," he said.
Flood said the briefings have continued.
His client takes full responsibility for his mistake, he said.
"He's repudiated ISIS to me, his parents, the imams who visit him and the court," he said.
Amin admitted helping Niknejad travel to Syria to join ISIS in January, authorities said. FBI Assistant Director Andrew McCabe said that after taking Niknejad to the airport, Amin delivered a letter and thumb drive to Niknejad's family informing them that they would likely never see him again.
Amin and Niknejad sometimes used code words to communicate. "Syracuse" meant "Syria," "basketball" meant "jihad" and "basketball team" meant "jihadist organization."
Amin was arrested at his home in the D.C. suburb of Manassas in March.
"He gained over 4,000 followers on Twitter and sent over 7,000 tweets as part of his campaign to help ISIL," U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente said.
Niknejad made it to Syria, Boente said. Charges against Niknejad were unsealed Thursday in Alexandria, alleging he conspired to provide material support to terrorists and conspired to kill and injure people abroad.
Amin also admitted using Twitter to provide advice and encouragement to the Islamic State and its supporters, according to a statement of facts filed with the plea agreement. Through his Twitter handle Amreekiwitness -- Amreeki translates to "American'' -- Amin provided instruction on how to use Bitcoin, a virtual currency, to mask funds going to the group and helped supporters seeking to travel to Syria to fight with the group, court documents said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Ben'Ary described Amin as exceptionally intelligent but said his Twitter following showed "he was not being radicalized, he was radicalizing ... He clearly understood what ISIS was up to. He clearly understood his conduct was illegal and he made a choice."
"Amin made ISIL propaganda accessible to western supporters and provided justification for violent acts, including the beheading of journalists," McCabe said.
Prosecutors also suggested by encouraging his friend to go to Syria, Amin may have sent him to his death.
"What we do know in terms of local impact is that there is a Prince William County family that is missing a son, and it's likely he will die. He had an enormous hand in that," said Ben'Ary.
Amin also made a statement, telling the judge, "I stand before the court today taking responsibility for my actions. I have not tried to deny or explain away anything I've done."
Amin's attorney fears the stiff sentence for his client could deter other parents from coming forward if their kids are recruited by online jihadists.
"Where families have to make hard decisions about what to do when they find their children on the Internet engaged with terrorists abroad, I think it's a God awful decision to have to make as this family did, and I agree with their decision to involve law enforcement," Flood said.
A Northern Virginia Muslim leader agrees the Ali Amin case could prompt parents to try to handle concerns at home. Whether teens are recruited by local gangs or ISIS figures online, families should be able to turn to law enforcement for help.
"I hope we can build bridges where we can actually have some trust where parents can come forward and it becomes a mentorship rather than a punishment, because that's what the parents were looking for," said Muneer Baig, president of the Manassas Muslim Association. "They were looking for a mentor to come in and help this child navigate away from this drastic path they were taking. They were not looking for their child to be taken away for 11 years."
But the U.S. attorney sees a different message: The sooner parents contact authorities, the better to keep their child from becoming radicalized.
"We would hope that message would be, 'Will you contact us so we can avoid that. In this case had we known earlier perhaps we could have avoided someone who may very well die," said Dana Boenta, referring to the teen who traveled to join ISIS.
Before his arrest, Amin was an honor student at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, where Niknejad also was a student.