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Lawyer: First Amendment protects teen accused of trying to join terrorists

Lawyers for a suburban teen accused of trying to join Islamic State terrorists in Syria are making a new bid for his freedom while he awaits trial on charges they argue should be dismissed on First Amendment grounds.

Mohammed Hamzah Khan of Bolingbrook believed he had a religious obligation to emigrate to an Islamic Caliphate when federal agents nabbed him in October at O’Hare Airport as he allegedly tried to travel to the Middle East with two younger siblings, lawyer Thomas Anthony Durkin argued in a motion filed late last week.

“While it is easy to disagree with Mr. Khan’s unpopular religious beliefs and label them misguided simplistic, or even fundamentalist, it cannot be said that [they] were not sincerely held — and that is all that must be shown,” Durkin wrote.

But before deciding whether that argument carries the day, Durkin wants U.S. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. to allow Khan’s release from a detention center in Kankakee so he can pursue counseling along the lines of a pilot program described in September 2014 by Attorney General Eric Holder — one that seeks to prevent the radicalization and recruitment of Americans by Islamic State terrorists.

Federal authorities say that’s been the fate of several suburban Chicagoans in recent years. They include Hasan and Jonas Edmonds of Aurora, who were arrested last month for allegedly conspiring to help Islamic State terrorists.

Another Aurora resident, Abdella Ahmed Tounisi, was arrested at the airport in April 2013 while allegedly trying to join the al-Qaida group Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria. Adel Daoud of Hillside is also accused of plotting to blow up a pair of downtown Chicago bars in September 2012.

“It’s not a mental disease or defect,” Durkin said of the radicalization of Americans. “It’s a critical thinking, education issue.”

Stephen N. Xenakis, a forensic psychiatrist and retired Brigadier General of the U.S. Army has been hired by Durkin and the Khan family, Durkin wrote in his motion. Xenakis would testify that Khan, “while being very immature and sorely lacking in critical thinking skills,” has not become radicalized and doesn’t endanger the community, Durkin wrote.

Rather, FBI reports disclosed with Durkin’s latest motions indicate Khan asked federal agents after he was stopped at the airport how many girlfriends they had in high school, told them he had several, and said he once took a selfie with Kim Kardashian in Chicago.

But he also mentioned Tounisi, the reports show. He said he suspected he might have been under government surveillance weeks before he arrived at the airport, and he acknowledged he was referring to the terrorist network ISIS when he wrote in a letter to his parents, “an Islamic State has been established and it is thus obligatory upon every able-bodied male and female to migrate there.”

Durkin wants to bar everything Khan said to law enforcement at the airport from his trial.

Khan is next expected in court May 7, when his lawyers could argue with prosecutors over his release. In a brief appearance Tuesday, Tharp gave prosecutors until early June to respond to Durkin’s other arguments — including the request to throw out the indictment on First Amendment grounds.