ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A 17-year-old who otherwise would have been graduating with honors from high school this week instead pleaded guilty Thursday to terrorism charges for helping another teen travel to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Ali Shukri Amin of Manassas pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists in federal court in Alexandria. Before his arrest, Amin was an honor student at Osbourn Park High School. The teen, who now faces up to 15 years in prison, appeared in court Thursday in a blue jumpsuit from Northern Neck Regional Jail.
Juveniles rarely face charges in the federal system, and the case remained under seal for several months while prosecutors navigated the process to have the charges moved into adult court.
Amin admitted that he helped 18-year-old Reza Niknejad of Prince William County travel to Syria to join the group in January. 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.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente said Niknejad made it to Syria. 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 to using Twitter to provide advice and encouragement to ISIS 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.
McCabe said the case illustrates the danger of online propaganda. He said Amin was "brought into this seductive, destructive ideology by the material he consumed online." Authorities said Amin was a sophisticated user of social media and that he also helped people make anonymous financial contributions to ISIS using Bitcoin.
McCabe also said that Amin provided justification for ISIS atrocities, including the beheading of journalists. He said that Amin provided support for ISIS "while acting from the comfort of his home in our community of northern Virginia."
Defense lawyer Joseph Flood said Amin was motivated by sincere religious beliefs and outrage at the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"It's part of the modern era of the Internet," Flood said. "Sometimes people feel frustrated in their inability to effect change against a government committing atrocities. ... He was blogging on the Internet. It's as simple as that."