RALEIGH, N.C. — The government wants to keep some evidence secret from the public in the case of a North Carolina man charged with trying to join an al-Qaida-linked group fighting in Syria’s civil war and a judge will decide how to protect some of that classified information.
At a hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle will begin balancing the government’s concerns against the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The FBI says it has evidence collected by secret informants who kept up an online correspondence with Basit Sheikh of Cary, N.C., in which he expressed a desire to join and fight with Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist group.
Sheikh was arrested two months ago at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on his way to Lebanon. The FBI said he planned to sneak into Syria to join the fight against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people over 2 1/2 years. The Nusra Front is one of the primary rebel forces fighting against Assad’s troops.
Boyle last week rejected a bid to free Sheikh on bail after deciding he was both a flight risk and danger to the community.
“The allegation of such a crime weighs heavily against the defendant. It is not a common violent crime, but rather terror that rips civilization’s fabric,” Boyle wrote in his ruling.
Sheikh has no criminal record, but during a November hearing his mother testified that the 29-year-old man likely suffered from anxiety and depression, needed psychiatric help, lacked a job and spent all of his time on the Internet, Boyle wrote. Sheikh’s plan to run away to Syria to join the terrorist group was hatched while living in his parents’ home, Boyle wrote.
“Defendant has a strong incentive to not appear for future hearings. The charges are serious, the evidence is strong and defendant faces up to 15 years’ imprisonment.”
Sheikh’s defense attorneys had sought his release into his parents’ custody, saying he was a student who was an active community volunteer and who frequently posted pro-Islamic comments on Facebook. Sheikh was drawn into the idea of fighting in Syria through his written, online discussions with an FBI agent or confidential informant who was described as a female nurse in Syria, his attorney said.
At least in the beginning, “the communications between Mr. Sheikh and the ‘nurse’ were personal, and even romantic in nature,” wrote Robert E. Waters, a federal public defender representing Sheikh. Sheikh may have gone so far as to propose marriage to the FBI contact, Waters wrote.
The FBI has been on the lookout for Americans expressing interest in joining the Syrian war, where they could become radicalized by al-Qaida-linked militant groups and return to the U.S. as battle-hardened security risks.
Sheikh’s case was at least the third last year in which the U.S. government charged U.S. residents with providing material support to a terrorist group based on their alleged efforts to join Jabhat al-Nusra.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, an 18-year-old from suburban Chicago, was arrested in April at O’Hare International Airport as he prepared for the first leg of a trip to join the group, authorities say. The American-born Tounisi pleaded not guilty.
In September, federal authorities in northern Virginia released a U.S. Army veteran accused of fighting alongside the jihadi group after a secret plea deal. Eric Harroun, 31, had faced up to life in prison. But defense lawyers argued there was confusion about which rebel group Harroun had joined, that Harroun traveled to Syria planning to fight with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and that fighting with the FSA was not a crime.
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