Oxford, Mississippi -- A Mississippi man who once tried to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, credited arresting FBI agents with saving his life as he was sentenced to eight years in prison Wednesday, telling a federal judge he didn’t then understand what ISIS represented.
U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock sentenced Muhammad Dakhlalla after he pleaded guilty in March to one count of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He was also sentenced to 15 years of probation.
The 22-year-old Dakhlalla said he was misled by internet videos he watched with former fiancee Jaelyn Young that showed ISIS members helping people in Syria and Iraq. He said he changed his mind after watching television news coverage of ISIS attacks while jailed.
“I was completely wrong about what ISIS was,” Dakhlalla told Aycock. “I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re really sick and twisted. They twist Islam for their own agenda. I denounce them. I condemn them.”
Aycock sentenced Young to 12 years in prison and 15 years of probation earlier this month. Prosecutors Wednesday said they agreed Dakhlalla was less at fault and deserved a lighter sentence than Young, who prosecutors have said prodded Dakhklalla toward joining ISIS and planned the pair’s attempt to travel to Turkey. Young once considered a cover story that the trip was a honeymoon for the pair.
Dakhlalla thanked by name the lead FBI agent on the team that arrested the pair at an airport near Columbus, Mississippi, in August 2015. Authorities said the couple had contacted undercover federal agents posing as ISIS contacts in May, seeking online help in traveling to Syria. Dakhlalla, in online contacts, said he was good with computers and media and wanted to contribute to ISIS’ struggle. Court papers say Dakhlalla later said online that he was willing to become a soldier, writing “I am willing to fight. I want to be taught what it really means to have that heart in battle!”
“The FBI, they really saved my life,” Dakhlalla told Aycock Wednesday. “I was about to do something reckless and stupid. Even if I had been successful in getting over there, I’d probably be dead by now.”
The 2015 psychology graduate of Mississippi State University faced up to 20 years in prison on the charge, but prosecutors recommended limiting the maximum sentence to 12 years as part of Dakhlalla’s plea bargain. Defense attorney Greg Park told Aycock that a lighter sentence was justified, considering Dakhlalla’s previously spotless record, as well as his acceptance of responsibility.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner, though, urged Aycock to disregard claims that Dakhlalla didn’t really know what ISIS was after researching them online.
“It’s not as if ISIS or ISIL are hiding who they are,” Joyner said. “To say you’re not aware of their atrocities is a bit disingenuous.”
Imposing a lower sentence, Aycock said she was balancing Dakhlalla’s contrition and lack of criminal record with the gravity of the crime.
“Probably I won’t see you again, but these are serious crimes against the United States,” she said.
Dakhlalla’s father, a native of Bethlehem, West Bank, is a prominent figure in the college town of Starkville’s Muslim community and an occasional prayer leader at the mosque across the street from the family’s house. His mother, a New Jersey native, ran a restaurant and later sold hummus in local farmers markets. Dakhlalla is the youngest of three sons and was preparing to start graduate school in psychology at Mississippi State when he was arrested.
Among the regrets Dakhlalla listed was lying to his mother about his travel plans with Young the day before he was arrested. She died in April of cancer, he said, amid tears.
Brother Salaahuddin Dakhlalla was the only immediate family member to attend the hearing. He declined to speak to reporters afterward.
Dennis Harmon, a Columbus lawyer, acted as a family spokesman. He said the family knew Dakhlalla would have to serve a multi-year prison term.
“He is a fine young man who did something incredibly stupid,” Harmon said. “He will have a life to reclaim, starting in his 30s.”
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