CHICAGO – In a rare move for terror cases, a federal judge agreed Thursday to release on home confinement an Illinois teenager charged with trying to join an al-Qaida-linked militant group in war-torn Syria.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, of Aurora, arrested in an FBI sting last month at O’Hare International Airport last month as he allegedly prepared for the first leg of a trip to join the al-Qaida-affiliated group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Tounisi also spoke with a friend of his last year about bombing targets in Chicago, prosecutors say. He is not charged in that case, though the friend, Adel Daoud, was and is in jail awaiting trial.
After announcing his surprise ruling, the otherwise soft-spoken U.S. magistrate judge leaned forward on his bench Thursday and raised his voice, telling the teenager he should take the allegations seriously.
“This is no game, Mr. Tounisi. OK?” Judge Daniel Martin told him.
The slight, short Tounisi stood before the judge in orange jail garb and slippers, flanked by U.S. marshals. Some 30 friends and relatives sat on spectator benches; several cried after the judge ruled.
After ruling, the judge stayed his own order for 24 hours to give prosecutors a chance to appeal, which they announced later Friday they would do. A hearing in the matter was set for Friday.
Prosecutor William Ridgway had argued that Tounisi posed a threat to the community, saying he sought to hook up with the al-Qaida-linked group in Syria even after his friend Daoud’s arrest.
“One would think that would be a wake-up call,” Ridgway said about the arrest. “But it didn’t deter him.”
Tounisi persisted even as family and friends warned him not to get involved with extremists, Ridgway said. He quoted a friend as saying about Tounisi in a wiretap, “He will not die a martyr. He will die like road kill.”
The prosecutor said Tounisi also is a flight risk, noting how he had managed to secure a U.S. passport on short notice and to scrape together money for a plane ticket.
“He’s very resourceful,” Ridgway told the judge.
But Tounisi’s attorney, Molly Armour, said Tounisi came from a caring home and had no prior criminal record. She also said a terrorist-related charge shouldn’t automatically deny release.
“The word ‘terrorism’ is a word that tends to taint everything,” she told the court.
She also gestured to the back of the courtroom, where dozens of members of his community sat, assuring the judge they would also watch over Tounisi and see that he stays out of trouble.
“They are committed to being part of his life,” she said. “That offers a backstop to the family.”
Judge Martin said repeatedly that his decision to grant Tounisi release was a close call. He told Tounisi’s father, Ahmad Tounisi, that a landline must be installed in the Aurora family home before his son could be released – to comply with home confinement and electronic monitoring.
The judge told Tounisi’s father that he will be obliged to contact authorities immediately if his son takes “one step out of the house.” The elder Tounisi said he understood and would comply.
Tounisi, a U.S. citizen, was snared in an Internet sting after contacting a sham website set up by the FBI that purported to connect would-be fighters with terrorists, federal prosecutors said.
He is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he faces a maximum 15-year prison term.
Daoud, Tounisi’s friend, was arrested last year on charges he sought to detonate a device he thought was a bomb outside a downtown bar. Daoud has pleaded not guilty and is in jail awaiting trial.