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Former DePaul University student guilty of trying to help Islamic State through computer program

Defense attorneys said the case ran up against fundamental questions about free speech, insisting that Thomas Osadzinski “had a right to watch those videos. He had a right to share those videos.”

Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.
Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.
Sun-Times Media

A federal jury on Monday convicted a onetime student at DePaul University of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State in the form of a computer script that helped disseminate the terrorist group’s propaganda.

Jurors at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse listened to roughly two weeks of evidence about Thomas Osadzinski, 22, who was first charged in November 2019. The case was believed to be the first of its kind — a terrorism case brought against a U.S.-based defendant involving computer code.

Prosecutors said Osadzinski designed a process that uses a computer script to make Islamic State propaganda, including videos, more conveniently accessed and disseminated by users on the social media platform Telegram.

But defense attorney Joshua Herman insisted the case ran up against fundamental questions about free speech, telling jurors in closing arguments Friday that Osadzinski “had a right to watch those videos. He had a right to share those videos.”

“Liking ISIS is not illegal,” Herman told the jury.

Rather, closing arguments in the case revolved generally around whether Osadzinski had acted independently of the Islamic State. Prosecutors insisted he acted either in coordination with, or at the direction of, the terrorist group.

“We are disappointed with the decision, which strikes a blow against the First Amendment and the protections that exist even in so-called terrorism cases,” Herman said in a statement after the verdict Monday. “We will continue to fight for the important issues at stake in this case and for our client.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Melody Wells told jurors last week the Islamic State viewed their media messengers as equals to their battlefield soldiers. And she pointed to the terrorist group’s propaganda instructing supporters to “strive patiently in the digital arena.” The group wanted its supporters to respond to shuttered social media accounts by opening even more, she said.

“[Osadzinski] was responding to those directions to engage in media jihad to support ISIS on the digital front,” Wells said. “There is nothing independent about this.”

But Herman argued “that’s still independently acting. That’s still acting on your own.” He said that “parallel advocacy is not illegal,” and he insisted to jurors that “the First Amendment includes a right to say things that are disfavored. That are reprehensible. That are vile.”

“There must be coordination with, or at the direction of, ISIS,” Herman said. “Then, and only then, with direction and coordination, does the mighty First Amendment give way.”

Osadzinski told an online undercover fed that he planned to spread Islamic State propaganda everywhere and make sure nobody could take it down, prosecutors say. He also told another person cooperating with the feds he believed his work represented the “highest form of jihad” and that “no more than 10 brothers know how to do this kind of jihad.”

Wells said that Osadzinski resisted and fought back when he was finally arrested. And in “one final gesture of support” to the Islamic State, she said, he “raised his finger in salute.”