PHILADELPHIA – A teen from Pakistan with a once-bright future in the U.S. pleaded guilty Friday to terrorism charges for helping an American woman dubbed "Jihad Jane" support an Irish terror cell planning to wage a Muslim holy war in Europe.
Mohammad Hassan Khalid had won a full scholarship to prestigious Johns Hopkins University before the FBI arrested him last summer at 17, making him the rare juvenile held in federal custody.
Khalid, now 18, faces up to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. In a secret life online, the high school honors student had agreed to raise money and recruit terrorists for jihad.
"It's absolutely tragic," defense lawyer Jeffrey M. Lindy said after the plea. "Was he feeling lonely after coming from Pakistan? Absolutely. But he was not a loner. He wasn't the big man on campus, or captain of the football team. But he wasn't a black trench-coat wearing loner."
Khalid lived with his hard-working parents and siblings in a cramped apartment in Ellicott City, Md., while building an alternate life online.
He met Colleen LaRose in a chat room when he was 15 and began corresponding with her. LaRose, who dubbed herself "Jihad Jane," lived with a boyfriend in small-town Pennsylvania, but had secretly converted to Islam and was appearing in jihadist YouTube videos. She faces life in prison after admitting last year that she had plotted to kill a Swedish artist whose cartoon had offended Muslims.
In court Friday, prosecutors said that Khalid once received a package from LaRose, removed a passport from it and then forwarded other items to co-conspirators. He wanted to deliver the passport to them himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said.
"Khalid also sought confirmation from LaRose that her 'brothers' are REAL muhahids," or jihadists, Williams said. Khalid also helped LaRose remove online jihadist posts after the FBI interviewed her, she said.
The government recovered extensive electronic communications between the parties, she said.
Messages sent on July 19, 2009, detail co-defendant Ali Charaf Damache, known as the Black Flag, telling Khalid their group would be a "professional organized team" training with either al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or the Islamic State of Iraq.
Damache instructed Khalid to recruit men and women with passports who could travel through Europe. Khalid then sent out at least one questionnaire that he forwarded to LaRose.
Damache remains in Irish custody on an unrelated phone threat charge, U.S. authorities said.
Khalid and his family are legal immigrants, but his parents and three siblings had become naturalized U.S. citizens, some recently, while he had not. He therefore faces likely deportation when he leaves prison, U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker warned him.
Khalid, a thin teen with glasses and closely cropped hair, said he understood. His family was not in court for the brief hearing. His sentencing is on hold indefinitely, perhaps because Damache awaits extradition to the U.S.
Khalid had been offered a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins while a student at Mount Hebron High School, where his teachers recalled his strong work ethic. Online, he was investigating various ideologies, as other young people might dabble with socialism or communism, Lindy said.
"He was experimenting with an ideology from his cultural background," Lindy said. "It was his misfortune to meet (LaRose)."
LaRose, of Pennsburg, Pa., was being watched by the FBI after posting online videos in which she vowed to kill or die for the jihadist cause.
LaRose was arrested in November 2009 after returning to the United States from Ireland, where authorities said she traveled after agreeing to marry an online contact from South Asia and become a martyr. LaRose intended to murder Swedish artist Lars Vilks for depicting the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog, authorities said.
Investigators said there's no evidence LaRose ever made it to Sweden.
Damache, an Irish citizen from Algeria married another American woman, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, of Colorado, after she moved to Waterford, Ireland, to meet him. Paulin-Ramirez has also pleaded guilty to providing material aid to terrorists.
Neither she nor LaRose has been sentenced.
The American women were sought for their Western looks and passports, authorities have said.