A Maryland honor student who hoped to attend Johns Hopkins University on a full scholarship instead pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring to help a Pennsylvania woman known as "Jihad Jane" plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had offended Muslims.
Mohammed Hassan Khalid, 18, is believed to be the youngest person ever charged with terrorism in a U.S. civilian court.
During a short hearing at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, Khalid pleaded guilty to a single charge of providing material support to terrorists, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. Khalid faces up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when sentenced. No sentencing date has been set.
Khalid, who moved with his family from Pakistan to suburban Baltimore in 2008, had been accepted on a full scholarship at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, according to the Daily News.
"This is the saddest case I've ever been involved with in my career," the Daily News quoted Khalid's lawyer, Jeffrey Lindy, as saying. "He's a smart kid who understands what's happening. But how much can an 18-year-old brain comprehend about a life-altering experience like this?"
According to filings by U.S. prosecutors, Khalid began communicating online with fellow jihadists in the United States, Ireland and South Asia as early as age 15.
One of them was Colleen R. LaRose, the suburban Philadelphia woman who called herself "Jihad Jane." LaRose pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. The artist had offended some Muslims by drawing a cartoon with the head of the prophet Mohammed on a dog's body.
U.S. officials have said the "Jihad Jane" case is unusual because it involves a green-eyed, blonde American woman who boasted that her appearance and U.S. passport allowed her to conduct terror activities without drawing suspicion.
"Today's plea, which involved a radicalized teen in Maryland who connected with like-minded individuals around the globe via the Internet, underscores the evolving nature of violent extremism today," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Lisa Monaco.
Khalid helped LaRose raise money and recruit other conspirators online "to wage violent jihad in and around Europe," U.S. officials said. In addition, Khalid helped LaRose hide a stolen U.S. passport and, officials said, hoped "he could personally provide it to the mujahideen."
Khalid also communicated with one of the plot's alleged leaders, Ali Charaf Damache, an Algerian living in Ireland. Damache, who used the alias "Black Flag," is charged with conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists. He was arrested in 2010 in Ireland on an unrelated charge and the United States is seeking to extradite him on the American terror charges.
According to the Philadelphia Daily News, in a July 2009 email cited in the indictment Khalid told LaRose: "I have waited for this ‘donation’ moment for so long and I want to make sure that everything is true so that the money reaches ... the hands of brothers who are true to their intentions and are REAL mujahids (fighters engaged in violent jihad) not some fbi hungry agents ...”
LaRose was arrested in October 2009, shortly after returning from a visit to meet Damache in Ireland.
The FBI arrested Khalid in July, when he was still a juvenile, but the case was not unsealed until September, when he turned 18. Under the plea agreement, he faces adult charges.
In a statement, Zane Memeger, the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia, highlighted Khalid's youth.
"This case has demonstrated that age is not a limiter to threats to our nation's security," Memeger said. "Regardless of a defendant's age or background, we are committed to keeping our communities and our country safe through the investigation and prosecution of violent extremist activity."
Khalid was a legal U.S. resident but, unlike his siblings and parents, he did not become a naturalized American citizen. As a result, Lindy said, Khalid is likely to be deported back to Pakistan after he finishes serving his U.S. sentence.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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