Abdella Tounisi’s family warned him if he went overseas to join terrorist fighters, he wouldn’t die a martyr — “you will die like a road kill.”
Tounisi didn’t listen. Not even when the FBI came knocking on his door after the arrest of his friend for an unsuccessful bomb plot in 2012. Instead, Tounisi was arrested seven months later, trying to hop a flight to Turkey at O’Hare Airport in April 2013.
A judge finally sentenced him Thursday to the maximum penalty he faced — 15 years in prison. But before he learned his fate, Tounisi turned to a federal prosecutor and said, “thank you.”
“Thank you for saving my life,” Tounisi, 23, of Aurora, said.
That prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas, acknowledged Thursday that Tounisi seemed remorseful for trying to join al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria. Tounisi also allegedly helped Adel Daoud plot a bombing, but Tounisi backed out after becoming suspicious of someone who turned out to be an undercover federal agent.
Still, when handing down Tounisi’s sentence, U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan said, “there are no free passes” when it comes to terrorism. He said Tounisi tried to join a group bent on “indiscriminate death and injury to men, women and children” and the destruction of the United States.
“You chose to join a bunch of thugs that take pride in cowardly killings,” Der-Yeghiayan said.
Tounisi shook Jonas’ hand when the sentencing hearing ended. He then waved to his family as he was led out of the courtroom. His attorneys later declined to comment.
Tounisi, who was born in Massachusetts, has been in federal custody ever since he was arrested trying to catch that flight at O’Hare on April 19, 2013. His lawyers wrote in court filings that he endured prejudice and bullying while growing up because he was a Muslim. They also said his father faced discrimination at work after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Defense attorney Molly Armour said Tounisi sought belonging as a teen and turned to religion, but he ultimately took “a very, very, very wrong turn.” Armour’s co-counsel, Patrick Blegen, also told the judge that Tounisi tried to deter Daoud, who still faces charges for allegedly trying to blow up a Chicago bar in September 2012.
Armour said Tounisi now wants to share his story with others as a community service. But Der-Yeghiayan wasn’t sold on the idea. And despite acknowledging Tounisi’s remorse, Jonas asked the judge to hand down the harsh sentence. Jonas argued it took Tounisi’s arrest to finally put an end to his fantasies of joining terrorists overseas.
“The defendant would not, and could not, be deterred,” Jonas wrote in a sentencing memo earlier this month. “It took the FBI to intercede and arrest the defendant at the airport to put an end to his plans, as well as to have saved his life.”
A classmate of Tounisi’s at the College of DuPage helped the feds gather information about Tounisi early in 2013, records show. That classmate viewed videos with Tounisi of U.S. soldiers in Iraq being attacked by a large improvised explosive device. Tounisi allegedly celebrated what he saw.
By that time, Tounisi’s family was already aware of his plans to travel to Syria and his “fixation on engaging in a suicide operation,” prosecutors say.
His mother said she took his passport, and one relative allegedly told him, “If you go, do not think you will die a martyr, you will die like a road kill,” records show.
The feds eventually caught Tounisi in an Internet sting after he contacted a sham website he first visited March 28, 2013. It was set up by the FBI, and it purported to hook up would-be fighters with terrorists, according a criminal complaint.
The top of the website said, “A Call for Jihad in Syria,” and it asked would-be fighters to “come and join your lion brothers of Jabhat Al-Nusra who are fighting under the true banner of Islam, come and join your brothers, the heroes of Jabhat Al-Nusra,” records show.
The feds say Tounisi sought a new passport and made contact through the sham website with someone he thought was a recruiter for Jabhat al-Nusrah.
That person turned out to be an FBI employee.
In email exchanges with the undercover FBI employee, Tounisi described his plan to get to Syria through neighboring Turkey and spoke of his willingness to die in battle, according to authorities.
He was frank with the purported recruiter, according to the FBI. In one email Tounisi wrote, “Concerning my fighting skills, to be honest I do not have any. I’m very small . . . physically but I pray to Allah that he makes me successful,” according to the complaint.