“Your case is an unusual one,” Judge Leonie M. Brinkema told Kokayi. “You had an absolutely improper infatuation with this child, and you acted inappropriately on it.”
But, she said, “it’s not the typical pornography case.” Federal guidelines calling for a life sentence were “way out of proportion” for the conduct, she said.
Kokayi lives in Alexandria, worked at the University of Maryland University College and taught the Koran at a mosque in D.C. In court, he apologized to his wife, his family and his friends. Singing in Arabic, he said his fate was ultimately in the hands of God.
“I have many shortcomings and I’ve committed many sins,” he said. “I blame no one but myself.”
Prosecutors asked for a 25-year sentence, arguing Kokayi used his influence as a teacher to sway young girls toward extremism and sexual activity. He sent 16-year-old girls Islamic State videos and other propaganda. He sent them to his mother and friends as well.
Brinkema did not consider that material as part of her sentence, saying the 10-year mandatory minimum already went beyond the punishment she would choose if free to do so. But she did impose 20 years of supervised release, during which Kokayi is barred from any contact with terrorists or terrorist organizations.
It was Kokayi’s interest in radical ideology that first attracted the attention of law enforcement, along with his connection to a cleric who has encouraged murder of non-Muslims. One of the videos on jihad Kokayi shared with a teenage student came from his stepfather, Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal, who faces terrorism charges in New York.
“This is a case of an educated and savvy man preying on the vulnerabilities of a 15-year-old girl,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick said. “He is espousing violence, he is interested in it, he was deep in the weeds of this ideology and he was promoting that with children.”
Attorneys for Kokayi argued his interactions with the girl and his interest in extremism were overblown. While he sent her sexually explicit images and asked her to meet him in a hotel for sex, she never exposed herself to him and she told an FBI interviewer no real-life contact ever would have happened. Kokayi maintains he shared the propaganda to provoke discussion, and that he also presented his students with opposing views on Islam. He denied having any desire to join the Islamic State.
“These are the very things the founders sought to protect — religious speech and political speech,” defense attorney Mark Petrovich said. “He’s not espousing terrorism, he’s not espousing violence.”
Kokayi’s mother said in a letter to the court that when she married al-Faisal “it was a misjudge of character,” and that they have been religiously divorced for two years. Her son, she said, “has never privately spent any time with this person.”
In other letters, friends and family said the episode was an aberration in the life of a devoted son and brother. His wife wrote he was supportive through her pregnancy and motherhood, including her postpartum depression and work travel. When she craved french fries, he began making them at home. He learned signs to communicate with her sister, who has Down syndrome. He carried cash so he could always give money to homeless people and took public transportation for a month so a friend could use his car.
“I understand the magnitude of the situation and I wish nothing more than healing for everyone involved,” she wrote the court.