CHICAGO – A federal judge Friday quashed another judge’s surprise order to release an Illinois teenager pending trial on charges he sought to join al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, of Aurora, posed a potential threat not just to Illinois and the U.S. but to “the entire world community,” said U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang.
Standing in court in orange jail garb and his legs shackled, Tounisi showed no emotion at the ruling, which snuffed out his chance at freedom as he awaits trial. But his mother, Seham Tounisi, was distraught, crying as she left the Chicago courtroom and leaning against her husband, Ahmad Tounisi. A woman with them said, “This is unfair!”
On Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Martin ruled Tounisi could be released on home confinement. He stayed his own order to give the government 24 hours to appeal.
The American-born Tounisi was snared in an Internet sting after contacting a sham website set up by the FBI purporting to connect would-be fighters with terrorists, according to court filings. He was arrested at O’Hare International Airport last month as he allegedly prepared for the first leg of a trip to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusrah.
Judge Chang cited emails in which Tounisi allegedly stated his intention to join the al-Qaida-affiliated group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. That suggests “the defendant was knowingly attempting to join this group – a very dangerous group,” Chang said.
To drive home Tounisi’s apparent determination and resourcefulness, prosecutor William Ridgway said the cash-strapped teen even managed to divert financial aid to attend the College of DuPage in suburban Chicago to pay for his plane ticket.
Even after worried family members had told Tounisi he “will be killing (his) mother” by persisting in plans to travel abroad, he pushed ahead, the judge said.
The judge also cited Tounisi’s friend, Adel Daoud, who was arrested last year for allegedly trying to detonate a device he thought was a bomb outside a Chicago bar. Daoud has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say Tounisi helped brainstorm potential targets with Daoud, though Tounisi was never charged in that case.
Chang said an FBI interview with Tounisi about Daoud last year should have so frightened Tounisi as to make other alleged plots unthinkable to him.
“That should have been a life-altering event,” he said. “But it did not dissuade him.”
Defense attorney Molly Armour declined any comment after the hearing, including about the possibility of appealing Friday’s ruling. She told Chang that prosecutors were obliged to demonstrate her client constituted more than a “theoretical” threat. They had failed to do that, she said.
Tounisi 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.
The fake website Tounisi allegedly visited included flowery invitations to, “Join your lion brothers ... fighting under the true banner of Islam.” He engaged in email communications via the site with an FBI agent posing as a terrorist recruiter, court filings allege.
Critics have questioned whether such sites woo impressionable youth into contemplating crimes that otherwise wouldn’t cross their minds. Others say the websites help catch prospective terrorists in the virtual world before they carry out real-world harm.