In the months before a 17-year-old at Prince William County’s Osbourn Park High School was taken out of his home in handcuffs, accused of helping terrorists, he seemed to be doing the same thing as all his peers: lining up references for his college applications.
The boy did not yet know where he wanted to go or what he wanted to study — economics, computer science and cryptography were just three ideas he floated to a former teacher. But with above-average intelligence and a strong desire to learn new things, he seemed destined for success, those who knew him said.
“I thought he was just a great kid and had real potential,” said Bruce Averill, a former teacher at the Governor’s School @ Innovation Park in Manassas who had the youth in a college-level chemistry course.
Federal authorities saw the teen differently. By their account, the youngster successfully helped a man not much older than himself travel to Syria and join the Islamic State. The teen, officials said, is believed to have used online contacts to help make arrangements for the man’s trip. He is also believed to have involved another 17-year-old Osbourn Park student in his plot.
The case is still in its infancy — the teen was taken into custody Feb. 27 and charged as a juvenile — but is already drawing attention from law enforcement officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) sent a letter to FBI Director James B. Comey asking for a briefing. She said in an interview that she was concerned about a spate of cases in which the Islamic State seemed to have successfully wooed youths in the United States.
“We want to intercede and get engaged on this before it gets worse,” Comstock said.
James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, said recently that about 180 Americans have gone or tried to go to Syria since the conflict there began, although not all had nefarious intentions. Late last month, after three Brooklyn men were arrested on charges that they planned to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, Michael Steinbach, the FBI’s assistant director of the counterterrorism division, briefed a congressional subcommittee about the problem.
FBI spokesman Chris Allen said the bureau and the Department of Homeland Security also recently issued a bulletin to local law enforcement officials about the “continuing trend of Western youth being inspired by [the Islamic State] to travel to Syria to participate in conflict.”
Allen said authorities are concerned about recruitment efforts made by the Islamic State “particularly through social media engagement, and we urge the public to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.”
The case in Virginia seems to be yet another example of the phenomenon, although much remains unclear. The teen is charged as a juvenile as prosecutors navigate the process to move the case to adult court. The man he helped travel has not been publicly charged.
Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, declined to comment.
Some of those who know the high school student say that the allegations are hard to believe and that he might have been duped by someone more sophisticated overseas.
“That just is completely antithetical to what I know of the kid,” said Averill, the chemistry teacher.
Averill said the student did not seem radical and did not talk about his faith in class or during office hours. He said the teen dressed as any of his peers would.
A neighbor of the teen’s said he lived in Woodbridge with family members who seemed to include his mother, father, grandmother and infant sister. His mother and his attorney declined to comment Friday.
A Prince William County schools spokesman said the teen had recently been taking online classes, although he remained enrolled at Osbourn Park.
Dustin O’Bryant, who hired the youth to write for his digital currency news Web site, said the boy struck him as a “brilliant kid,” one who was able to quickly comprehend and write about complicated topics.
On the Internet, the teen seemed to represent himself as much older than he was. He called himself a “Computer Hardware Professional” and “Media Representative” on his LinkedIn profile and wrote that he was the “Co-Founder and Head” of an organization that built personal computers.
“I thought that was deceptive,” Averill said.
Averill said that when the boy was a junior at the exclusive Governor’s School in 2013, he battled some type of health problems that caused him to miss class frequently.
Averill added that although the teen received a B in his chemistry class, he received a lower grade in another class. That prompted school officials to ask him to return to his regular school, Averill said.
In class, Averill said, the teen was polite and quiet — so much so that he sometimes had to be pushed to participate. He had a female lab partner with whom he seemed to get along well, Averill said.
Averill said that although the teen was not among the elite students, he was a “highly critical thinker” who strove to improve his grades. He said the teen would often come to him during office hours with a few other students for chemistry help. He said the boy did not want to leave the Governor’s School. “It bothered him,” Averill said. “He liked being at the Governor’s School. He really did not want to get tossed out.”
Averill and O’Bryant said the boy did not talk extensively about his personal or family life. Both men said they had corresponded with him in recent months, and he had asked if they would serve as references or write letters of recommendation for college.
Averill said the boy sent him a note in November that talked of how he enjoyed his chemistry class and said he might like to study economics, computer science or cryptography.