Nicholas Young is sure a jury will agree he’s no radical Islamic terrorist.
First he might have to convince jurors he’s not a neo-Nazi.
“I can’t wait to go to trial,” Young said in a phone interview from a Virginia jail. “Frankly, my case isn’t like any other terrorism-related case that anyone’s ever brought forward.”
He’s right. Young is the only U.S. police officer to ever face terrorism charges — a case brought after he was under FBI surveillance during six of the 13 years he patrolled the D.C. Metro system.
The 36-year-old Alexandria native is also a Muslim convert who used to dress up as a Nazi officer in reenactments, according to court documents, and kept a prayer list that included Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. And he’s a Ron Paul supporter who used his vacation time to fight in a civil war on the other side of the world.
At a trial set for this week in Alexandria, federal prosecutors plan to pursue a novel argument. They will paint Young as a violent-minded believer in an alliance between Islamist and white supremacist terrorism at a time when both are sowing fear across the country.
“It’s a unique case; it’s a unique defendant,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said in court last month. “The defendant was an adherent of both . . . The common enemy is hatred of the Jews.”
Young says his historical enthusiasms and dark sense of humor have been distorted to wrongly portray him as a man with long-standing terroristic proclivities. His only crime, he contends, was trying to help a friend who turned out to be an FBI informant. His defense team argues he was entrapped.
“They’re really grasping at straws here, trying to take everything I said out of context and take it in the most sinister light,” Young said. During an hours-long interview from the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va., this summer, he discussed his interest in military history, his relationship with the FBI and his two trips to join rebel groups battling Moammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The alleged crime for which he was arrested in the summer of 2016 was nonviolent; he is accused of lying to the FBI about someone he thought had joined the Islamic State and sending that person $245 in mobile messaging cards. There was no threat to the Metro transit system, officials emphasized at the time.
But Young’s words and interests, some of which a judge has ruled could be used against him at trial, were incendiary. He honored a pre-Nazi far-right German group on his license plate, tattooed the logo of an SS unit on his arm and used Hitler’s birthday as an online password. Authorities say he joked with informants about wanting a female slave, smuggling weapons into federal court, and torturing and killing FBI agents.
On the FBI’s radar
Young was first contacted by the FBI in 2010 as authorities were investigating an acquaintance he knew through college and a local mosque. Court papers say Young told agents he was shocked by the allegations against Zachary Chesser , who was ultimately convicted of trying to join an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group and threatening the creators of "South Park." (Chesser, the defense says, later indicated he remembered Young as a conservative police officer "not interested in jihad.")
In the years that followed, Young never left the FBI's radar. He said alarming things to an undercover officer, according to court papers, including vowing that anyone who betrayed him would end up at the bottom of a lake and bragging about his stockpile of weapons. The officer introduced him to Amine El Khalifi, who would later be convicted of plotting to bomb the Capitol.
While Young’s violent comments kept him under scrutiny, for years his behavior never crossed a criminal line. Friends and family say he is no extremist or racist, just unusual. They point out that he had friends and girlfriends of various races and religions.
“My brother doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his body,” said his sister, Ashley Young. “He talks about violence only in a cartoonish, ‘Quentin Tarantino-esque’ way,” she said. “He loves fantasy and anime.”
“You would have to know him to know that,” she said. “If you put it in print, it looks different. . . . The only thing extreme about my brother is his video-game playing.”
The two had a happy and unremarkable childhood in the D.C. suburbs, raised by divorced parents who stayed on good terms. Nicholas Young considered joining the Army out of high school but did not want to upset his father, a teacher. So he enrolled at George Mason University and joined ROTC, where he learned following military orders was not for him.
Attention issues kept him from earning a degree. Though he was interested in getting a job with Fairfax police or the FBI, Young ended up leaving college to work in security. In 2003, he became a Metro Transit Police Department officer.
Young told his family about his new career by leaving invitations on their doorsteps to his academy graduation.
“He’s very stubborn and independent, except if he’s in a relationship — then it’s whatever the girl he’s with wants,” Ashley Young said.
Raised Catholic, Young said he began studying Islam in college and decided to convert in 2006, the year his father died. He didn't like how Catholic doctrine would change, he said, and came to see Islam as a more constant faith.
“Religion shouldn’t evolve unless new prophets come around,” he said.
As a transit officer, Young said he never used his gun, baton or pepper spray. In 2006, he earned a commendation from the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office for apprehending — without using a weapon — a robber who had a large knife.
But he said he was once or twice reprimanded for not issuing enough tickets to turnstile-jumpers.
“I was a little soft on things,” he said. “The person doing that doesn’t have the money to pay; I’m not really doing them any favors by giving them a $6 ticket.”
Fellow officers said Young was considered strange because of his penchant to prattle on about history and his passive approach to the job.
“Nick wasn’t just your average police officer,” former station manager Henry Marrow said. “He didn’t like to push people over. . . . He didn’t believe that people should be arrested for minor stuff.”
But Facebook rants about the government and his known history as a Nazi reenactor also made many fellow Metro police officers wary, as did the long beard Young began to grow. Around 2008, officials there took their concerns to the FBI, although the agency did not begin investigating Young for another two years.
If Young was concerned about his co-workers’ opinions, he didn’t show it. In 2011, he openly used his paid leave to help topple the Libyan government. By his telling, his first trip to the war-torn country was a decision born of impulse and a canceled vacation.
Young said he had made plans to go to a death metal concert in Japan, but the Fukushima nuclear disaster scared him off. With vacation time saved up, he needed something else to do.
Young had been following news of the unfolding civil war in Libya. Moved by the struggle of people there and excited by the idea of a revolution, he decided to join rebel groups. Later that year, he went a second time.
“During my entire time there, I never shot at anyone because I didn’t need to; everyone shooting at me was too far away,” he said.
He disputes that the men he fought with were extremists, though court papers say that in a text message later on he asked about members of an Islamist militia.
“Nothing was transmitted to me about sharia law or any other kind of political ambitions,” he said. His comrades in arms, he added, wanted help from the American government, as well as Michael Jackson cassettes and Los Angeles Lakers paraphernalia — “they were just normal guys.”
A co-worker warned Young that the FBI was looking into his travel, and he quickly returned home.
A ‘sympathetic figure’
When Young arrived back in the United States, he was met at the airport by two FBI agents.
Authorities debated whether they could arrest him then, court documents show, but the Justice Department ultimately declined. Instead, the agents suggested he become an undercover informant.
“They were very fake-friendly,” Young said, offering financial and professional help.
He turned them down.
“I would have just been going after people, looking for their weaknesses, so they could tailor something to infiltrate their life,” Young recalled.
Now he says the same thing happened to him, with informants repeatedly coming his way. In 2014, a shy 20-something named Mohammad stuck.
“They very cleverly created this character of a sympathetic figure,” Young said. “When he was talking about going overseas, the reason was to fight [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad. . . . It was totally humanitarian. . . . ‘He’s killing women and children, he’s killing civilians, people are being buried alive.’ And at no time did he show himself to be particularly religious.”
A friend who asked not to be named to keep his family out of the public eye said he also met the informant. “You couldn’t read the kid; he was very awkward, very weird — a putz,” the friend said. “He pulled at Nick’s heartstrings . . . I told Nick, ‘I think this guy is an informant.’ And Nick laughed.”
The friend said he believes that to get Young to send the gift cards, Mohammad told “him some sob story about needing to reach his family.”
According to the criminal complaint, however, the undercover operative made clear that the cards would be used to help Islamic State supporters join the terrorist group. Young would not comment on the details of the gift-card allegation.
Authorities in court papers say Mohammad exposed Young’s radical inclinations, not his tenderheartedness. In recorded conversations, Young expressed disdain for mosques that preach “jihad of the pen” and argued that terrorist attacks were understandable reactions to Western aggression.
“At no time did I ever praise the attacks,” Young maintained, “nor ever encourage any attacks against civilians.” He once called the Islamic State a “gang of criminals,” according to defense filings, and repeatedly told informants he would not break the law.
To make a case that he was entrapped by the FBI, Young will have to show he was not predisposed to support terrorism before he was first contacted by agents in 2010. That’s why the Nazi evidence, which predates his known interest in radical Islam, is important to the government’s case.
Young said much of the offensive material found in his home and on his computer was from a college class on European racism. And that, along with Nazi knives and pins, his collection included a Vietnam-era British flak vest, a Scottish breaksword, a Japanese samurai sword, Russian navy medals and a medieval coat of arms.
The World War II reenactments in which he dressed up as an SS officer were “just good fun,” he said. “It’s dead politics — it was a political movement that took place 60, 70 years ago.”
But Young is unabashedly anti-Israel, agreeing with former congressman Ron Paul that American support for the country has only caused more problems in the Middle East. Evidence shows he used an Israeli flag as a doormat and drove with a bumper sticker reading “Boycott the terrorist state of Israel.”
Nicholas Smith, a defense attorney for Young, said in court last month that the government was smearing his client in a way that defied “common sense.” Smith added, “White supremacism and militant Islam are mutually inconsistent.”
Kromberg disagreed, pointing to Young’s own apparent interest in the historical connections between Hitler and Muslim leaders. One witness, Kromberg said in court, will testify that after going to a fascist rally in 2000, Young opined, ‘Don’t discount the idea of an alliance with the Muslims to combat the Jews.’ ”
Young went to that rally, held by the far-right British National Party, as part of his George Mason class, he says. He earned an A- in “History 387 — Myth of a Master Race.”
Young, whose trial is set to begin Tuesday on charges of attempted material support for terrorism and obstruction of justice, is confident that such explanations will show he is neither a neo-Nazi nor a Islamist militant.
“I’ve been rotting away here in jail,” he said. “I’m ready to restart my life.”