RICHMOND, Va. – A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the convictions of three members of a North Carolina terror ring who plotted to attack the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., and targets abroad.
Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan, Hysen Sherifi and Ziyad Yaghi were convicted in 2011 after two FBI informants testified that they were part of a home-grown terror group that raised money, stockpiled weapons, took trips overseas and trained for jihadist attacks against perceived enemies of Islam. They were given prison terms ranging from 15 years to 45 years.
On appeal, the men argued that they never conspired to actually commit terrorist acts — they only talked about their beliefs, and such expression is protected by the First Amendment.
"Of course, their argument ignores that the jury found — as it was required to do in order to convict — that the appellants had, in fact, agreed to take action in furtherance of violent jihad," appeals court Judge Robert King wrote in the unanimous opinion.
"Their convictions rest not only on their agreement to join one another in a common terrorist scheme, but also on a series of calculated overt acts in furtherance of that scheme," King wrote.
Sherifi's attorney, John Clark Fischer, said he disagreed with the court's conclusion and expects to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We'll see if the Supreme Court is interested in deciding the difference between talk and action," he said.
Fischer, who described his client as "a terrorist wannabe," said he believes attorneys for the other men also are likely to appeal. Those lawyers did not immediately return telephone messages.
The appeals court also found no merit in a claim that evidence against the men was insufficient.
"The evidence, though largely circumstantial, was nevertheless substantial," the court said. "That evidence readily supports the determination that a rational finder of fact could (and in fact did) deem the evidence adequate to support each conviction beyond a reasonable doubt."
Yaghi was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism and conspiracy to carry out attacks overseas. Sherifi was convicted of both crimes, two counts of firearms possession, and conspiracy to kill federal officers or employees for plotting the Quantico attack. Hassan was convicted of providing material support to terrorists, but acquitted of a charge of conspiracy to carry out attacks overseas.
Sherifi was sentenced to 45 years in prison; Yaghi got nearly 32 years; and Hassan was sentenced to 15 years. They argued that the sentences were unreasonable, but the appeals court disagreed.