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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

US judge gives leniency to ISIS cooperator

Within days Bangladeshi migrant realised mistake he made going to Syria

The man was one of thousands of foreign fighters who joined Islamic State - but said he regretted his decision quickly. AP Photo
The man was one of thousands of foreign fighters who joined Islamic State - but said he regretted his decision quickly. AP Photo

A New York City man who joined ISIS in Syria before fleeing home and giving the FBI timely intelligence about terror threats was sentenced Thursday to 10 years of supervised release after telling a judge he knew he had made a mistake almost the moment he set foot in extremist-controlled territory.

The Bangladeshi immigrant could have received decades behind bars on charges that included supporting a foreign terrorist organisation. But authorities took the unusual step of seeking leniency in his case after prosecutors credited him with having a change of heart and secretly contacting the FBI to offer valuable intelligence

US District Judge Jack Weinstein also decided that all of the man's electronic communications will be monitored while he's under supervision.

Asked why by the judge why he went to Syria in the first place, the 29-year-old man — identified only as "John Doe" out of fear of retribution — said he was seeking to live in an "idealistic" Islamic society. Within days, he said he heard a sermon advocating suicide bombings.

"I wanted good and I saw nothing but evil," he said. On Wednesday, he wept as he told the judge, "I made the greatest mistake of my life,"

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have sought lengthy sentences in several cases involving radicalized, would-be Islamic State recruits who were thwarted before they could either fight for the group overseas or plot an attack on US soil. The man's case differs because he succeeded in joining ISIS for several months in 2014 and gaining access to inside information as the group was trying to establish a self-styled "caliphate" that posed a threat to the US at home and abroad, prosecutors said in court papers.

He began talking "within hours" of sneaking away from an ISIS camp in Syria, making him "uniquely situated to inform the government of (the group's) strategies, tactics, techniques, procedures, personnel and logistical operations," prosecutors said. Once back in the US, he secretly pleaded guilty as part of a cooperation agreement.

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Details of the man's odyssey had been officially kept under wraps until this week, when prosecutors unsealed court papers in advance of the sentencing hearing that began Wednesday.

The papers say the man had an uneventful upbringing in a Muslim household but grew despondent when his pregnant sister died from a sudden illness. He eventually became immersed in Islam and dropped out of college.

"I guess it was his way of mourning," his sister said Wednesday in court without disclosing her name. "He was withdrawn. ... We stopped speaking."

His online consumption of ISIS propaganda was flagged by the FBI, which warned him not to pursue a relationship with the group, the papers say. Instead, he travelled to Turkey and, using social media for guidance, reached Syria.

"He disappeared one morning and we had no idea where he went," the sister said.

Soon he was "confronted with the brutality of the organization and its dubious religious pronouncements, which were not consistent with the defendant's understanding of his faith," court papers say.

The man avoided battle duty by convincing his recruiters he had technical skills that "he had only seen in movies," the papers say. So he instead was given logistical and support roles until he secretly sent a message to the FBI offering his help, then risked crossing the Syrian border with ISIS documents.

"If he had been discovered, he would have been summarily executed," his attorney, Gary Villanueva said in court.

He told the judge Wednesday he had earned a finance degree from a public university after spending about two years in jail and while under protective custody. At the same time he's "keeping a low profile for the safety of myself and my family," he said.

He's thankful, he said, for the chance "to work against the most brutal organisation on earth."