The Northern Virginia teen who ran a prolific pro-Islamic State Twitter account and helped a young friend join the terrorist group in Syria was sentenced Friday to 11 years and four months in federal prison — a term less than what prosecutors had sought but one that will still put the youth behind bars into his late 20s.
Ali Amin, 17, did not seem to react as U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton imposed the punishment, nor did the nearly two dozen family members and supporters who filled the courtroom. Just minutes before, Amin had read a statement saying he did not “ask for or expect sympathy” and stood ready to accept whatever punishment was imposed. He stressed his extensive cooperation with investigators.
“I made my decisions, and I am prepared to bear their fullest consequences,” he said, his baritone voice void of emotion.
Hilton offered little commentary on the case but said he was moved by Amin’s age and lack of a prior criminal record in sentencing him below the prosecutors’ request for the maximum term of 15 years. He also imposed a lifetime of supervised release and monitoring of Amin’s Internet activities after he leaves prison.
In June, the former student at Prince William County’s Osbourn Park High School pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, admitting that he was the secret voice behind the pro-Islamic State Twitter account @AmreekiWitness and that he helped an 18-year-old male friend become part of the terrorist group in Syria.
By prosecutors’ account, Amin was an active, sophisticated Islamic State supporter whose efforts not only bolstered the terrorist group’s online propaganda machine but also sent them a real-life fighter. By his own side’s telling, he was little more than a troubled kid who lost himself while seeking acceptance and respect in a sinister, virtual world.
Joe Flood, Amin’s attorney, said he was “disappointed” with the severity of the penalty but “heartened” that the judge showed some mercy. U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said the punishment “sends a serious message that these crimes are extremely harmful to the community, and they’re going to be dealt with harshly.”
Both sides asserted that the case is yet another chilling example of the Islamic State’s ability to woo American youth online: U.S. authorities have accused more than 60 people across the country of being involved in Islamic State activities. Amin’s case is, in ways, emblematic of the phenomenon and, in other ways, uniquely tragic.
Born in Sudan, Amin came to the United States with his mother before he was 2 and later became a naturalized citizen, according to letters, medical records and other materials his attorney submitted to the court.
Life in the United States was not always easy. Amin, who grew up largely in Northern Virginia, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a boy, and the condition was so severe that he would sometimes vomit in front of classmates at school. He was close to his mother — she wrote that he slept in bed with her until about age 13 — but their relationship was also tense at times.
When his mother remarried, Amin became disconnected from many of the extended family members he considered his friends, letters and records show.
In his teenage years, Amin became upset about what he perceived as atrocities against Muslims in the Middle East and set out on a quest, mostly online, to learn more about his faith, according to the letters and records. He did well academically, even getting into the rigorous academic program at the Governor’s School @ Innovation Park. But when health problems drove him out of the program in early 2014, he began spending more time on the Internet. By the time his parents checked his activities, he was communicating with people who seemed to be older Islamic State supporters.
Authorities said they were tipped off to Amin’s communication with Islamic State supporters in February 2014; his mother wrote that the family, at the advice of a religious leader, reached out to law enforcement later that year. Even with FBI agents closing in on him, though, Amin successfully connected a friend, 18-year-old Reza Niknejad, with Islamic State supporters abroad and helped the older teen travel to Syria.
All the while, he seemed to be leading a life not unlike any other Woodbridge teenager. He had earned a 3.478 grade point-average, and just a few weeks before his arrest, he had been accepted into the engineering school at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ben’Ary urged Hilton to consider Niknejad’s fate in crafting Amin’s punishment: The 18-year-old, he said, was likely to die on the battlefield with the Islamic State. He told the judge that although Amin might be young, he was unusually intelligent and boasted a substantial online following, tweeting to more than 4,000 followers.
“He wasn’t being radicalized,” Ben’Ary said. “He was radicalizing.”
Asking that Amin face a sentence of six years and three months in prison, Flood noted Amin’s youthful susceptibility and argued that “his influence was actually very small.” Niknejad, Flood said, was the only person prosecutors could prove Amin helped radicalize and get to Syria.
Believed to still be abroad, Niknejad stands charged with conspiring to kill or injure people abroad and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and the Islamic State. Niknejad’s relatives have declined or not responded to repeated requests to comment.
Amin said of Niknejad’s relatives in particular: “I can never expect their forgiveness.”
Flood said he worried about how his client — who stands about 5-foot-10 and weighs 105 pounds — might fare in adult prison. He said that while Amin had an opportunity to build a new life, it might not be the one he and his parents had imagined.
“The truth is, if he had not been convicted of a crime, he would be starting at a university this week or next,” Flood said.