PHILADELPHIA – An al-Qaida suspect linked to a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist pleaded guilty on Monday in a U.S. court to a terrorism charge.
Ali Charaf Damache was escorted into federal court in Philadelphia for the change of plea hearing wearing a drab green prison jumpsuit and handcuffed behind his back. The Algerian-born Irish citizen had been extradited from Spain last year after authorities said they were able to track his online efforts to recruit American and European citizens to join a jihadist movement.
The 53-year-old, whose online handle was Theblackflag, was accused of being involved in a terror cell that wanted to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilk, who depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a dog. The plot never materialized, authorities said.
"This is exactly the kind of case that we want to be involved in because we want to be in the business of preventing disasters from happening not dealing with disasters after they happen," said U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain.
Authorities issued an indictment for Damache in 2011 and worked with multiple entities to extradite him to face charges in a civilian court, a move that was counter to President Donald Trump's promise to send terror suspects to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. McSwain said each case has to be handled individually, but the extradition requests that began years ago were always based on Damache being tried in U.S. federal court.
Damache pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists in exchange for prosecutors recommending a 15-year prison sentence including about four years of time served in Ireland and Spain and his agreeing to be deported. An identity theft charge was dropped as part of the deal.
Sentencing is scheduled for the end of October.
Prosecutors said Damache sought to recruit light-skinned women and others who did not fit the traditional terrorist profile to wage jihad. His targets included Colleen LaRose, a Pennsylvania woman who called herself "Jihad Jane," online; Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a single mother from Colorado; and Mohammad Hassan Khalid, who at the time was a high school honors student from Maryland. They were all eventually arrested.
Damache married Paulin-Ramirez the day she traveled to Ireland to meet him in 2009. Paulin-Ramirez eventually helped the FBI investigate the terror cell.
As part of the plea, Damache admitted to training a child to prepare for jihad. Prosecutors later identified the minor as Paulin-Ramirez's child, who she brought with her.
Officials said that Damache's group recruited men online to wage jihad in South Asia and Europe, and sought to recruit women with western passports to travel through Europe in support of the cause.
LaRose is serving a 10-year prison term. Paulin-Ramirez and Khalid have been released after serving their sentences.