According to US Attorney Dana Boente, prosecutors in the US have charged nearly 50 people for helping or attempting to help IS by using social media in an "unprecedented way." Ali Shukri Amin, a teenager from Woodbridge, Virginia, is the latest in a string of young Americans to become embroiled in the online battlefield.
Amin, 17, was arrested in February for using his computer to contact IS militants abroad and helping arrange travel for an 18 year old classmate to Syria, according to authorities. After months of secret proceedings while in federal custody, Amin pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorist groups, including IS.
In a court appearance on Thursday, the teenager admitted to being the voice behind a pro-IS Twitter account that once had over 4,000 followers. As part of a deal with prosecutors, he also confessed to aiding another teenager in travelling to Syria to fight with IS.
His case marks the first time an American juvenile was convicted for aiding IS. The charge carries a maximum possible sentence of 15 years in prison, though the teenager will likely serve less time due to his age. The conviction is unusual for federal authorities, as the federal justice system does not have juvenile prison facilities.
Though he was seen by his peers and teachers as just another teenager, authorities have said Amin used his online savvy to radicalize followers and even facilitate travel to Syria. Andrew McCabe, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office described the teenager as an "articulate" and "influential online figure" who was able to disseminate radical ideas to Westerners.
According to his plea, Amin started a pro-IS Twitter account under the handle @AmreekiWitness in June 2014, using the platform to tout the terrorist group’s cause and encourage financial support for them. He wrote that the group should be funded with virtual currency like Bitcoin, as it was "untrackable."
With more than 7,000 tweets, the teenager drew news attention when he interacted with the State Department’s anti-radicalization account. "IS has flaws," he wrote in the exchange. "But the moment you claim they cut off the heads of every non-Muslim they see, the discussion is over."
The 17-year-old even used the account to offer his opinion on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, after a grand jury found a police officer not guilty in the death of Michael Brown.
"They cower in fear of us whiles they massacre and oppress you!" he tweeted. "It’s time to strike fear into the hearts of the oppressors. #FergusonUnderIS."
The plea also detailed Amin’s involvement in helping his classmate travel to Syria to fight alongside IS militants. The incident began in September when Amin began converting 18-year-old Reza Niknejad to radical Islam. He then facilitated an interaction between Niknejad and an IS militant abroad through encrypted chat, shortly before he bought a plane ticket to Greece with a layover in Turkey.
Customs and Border Protection records show Ninknejad arrived in Turkey, but never boarded the flight to Greece. According to the plea, Amin was informed the next day by an IS supporter that Ninknejad had successfully crossed the border into Syria.
Though he is still abroad, Ninknejad has been charged in absentia with conspiring to kill and injure people abroad and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
According to the Washington Post, Amin’s Defense Attorney Joseph Flood describes the teenager as a "good person" who made a "youthful indiscretion." He added that Amin turned to the Internet and IS out of frustration with the Assad regime in Syria, and what he believed to be the US’ support of the Syrian government.
"He understands that what he did was a crime, and he takes responsibility for that today," Flood said.