Cab driver who tried to help Islamic State gets 11 years

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Mahmoud Elhassan was born in Sudan and came to America in 2012 on a green card to join his family. Within two years, he was advertising himself online to a radical cleric as a one-man "sleeper cell."

Elhassan, 26, a taxi driver from Woodbridge, was sentenced to 11 years in prison Friday for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. Elhassan was arrested last year in an FBI sting after he convinced a friend, Joseph Farrokh, to join the Islamic State and helped him get there by driving him to the airport.

At Friday's sentencing hearing, Elhassan tearfully renounced his support of the Islamic State and apologized to his family, to the American people in general, and to the Muslim community "for defaming their image."

"I was just kind of isolated," Elhassan told U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga as he tried to explain his actions. "All the stuff I was saying made me feel like a full man."

The sentence fell in between the request of prosecutors — who sought punishment closer to the 28-year maximum called for under sentencing guidelines — and the 4- to 6-year term sought by Elhassan's attorneys.

Prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said a long sentence was in order because Elhassan's conduct was the culmination of years of support for terrorist causes. In 2014, he communicated online with a radical Sudanese sheik, Mohammed Ali al Jazouly, telling him, "here with you is a sleeper cell." Six months before that, he opened a Facebook account with the words "solo wolf" in Arabic superimposed over a picture of a wolf stalking its prey.

"He was radicalized when he entered the United States," Fitzpatrick said at Friday's hearing.

Elhassan came to the FBI's attention after he wrote to a person who had been convicted in a terror-related case; that convict is not identified in court records, but by then had become a government cooperator.

In the sting operation, Elhassan convinced Farrokh to join the Islamic State and drove him to the Richmond airport, where Farrokh was arrested before boarding a flight that he intended to be the first leg of a journey to Syria.

Elhassan's lawyer, Thomas Durkin, said his client deserved a measure of mercy. Durkin said Elhassan suffered abuse as a child growing up in Sudan. At age 9, his mother took him to Egypt. At age 18, his mother left for the U.S., leaving Elhassan to care for his younger siblings.

Shortly after Elhassan arrived in the U.S. to join his mother and his older siblings, his mother died. In 2015, he fell in love with a Somali woman living in Atlanta, but his marriage proposal was rejected because the woman's father looked down on Elhassan's Sudanese heritage, Durkin said.

For a few months in 2015, Elhassan and friends set up a prayer table outside the Verizon Center in Washington, seeking to proselytize people to Islam.

Durkin also questioned the utility of federal sentencing guidelines in terrorism cases, in which a so-called "terrorism enhancement" routinely pushes the recommended sentence to the statutory maximum, no matter the circumstances of the case.

Trenga agreed that the terrorism enhancement renders the guidelines "less than completely useful" in terror cases.

Farrokh, the co-conspirator, was previously sentenced to 8½ years in prison.

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