BEIRUT

Middle East

Judge weighs government secrets in U.S. terror case

FILE - This June 26, 1997 file booking photo provided by the Tom Green County Jail in San Angelo, Texas, shows Colleen R. LaRose, also known as Jihad Jane. (AP Photo/Tom Green County Jail, File)

RALEIGH, North Carolina: The U.S. government wants to keep some evidence secret from the public in the case of a man charged with trying to join an Al-Qaeda-linked group fighting in Syria's civil war.

At a hearing Friday, a U.S. District judge will weigh the government's concerns against the defendant's right to a fair trial.

The FBI says it has evidence collected by secret informants who corresponded online with Basit Sheikh showing that he expressed a desire to join and fight with Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist group.

Sheikh was arrested two months ago at a North Carolina airport on his way to Lebanon. The FBI said he planned to sneak into Syria to join the fight against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The judge last week rejected an attempt to free Sheikh on bail after deciding he was a flight risk and a danger to the community.

Sheikh has no criminal record, but during a November hearing his mother testified that the 29-year-old likely suffered from anxiety and depression, needed psychiatric help, lacked a job and spent all of his time on the Internet, the judge wrote.

Sheikh's attorney said he was a student and active community volunteer who frequently posted pro-Islamic comments on Facebook. Sheikh was drawn into the idea of fighting in Syria through his online discussions with an FBI agent or confidential informant who was described as a female nurse in Syria, his attorney said.

At least in the beginning, "the communications between Mr. Sheikh and the 'nurse' were personal, and even romantic in nature," wrote Robert E. Waters, a federal public defender representing Sheikh. Sheikh may have gone so far as to propose marriage to the FBI contact, Waters wrote.

The FBI has been on the lookout for Americans expressing interest in joining the Syrian conflict, where they could become radicalized by Al-Qaeda-linked groups and return to the U.S.

Sheikh's case was at least the third last year in which the government charged U.S. residents with providing material support to a terrorist group based on their alleged efforts to join Jabhat al-Nusra.

Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, an 18-year-old from Chicago, was arrested in April at O'Hare International Airport as he prepared to join the group, authorities say. Tounisi pleaded not guilty.

In September, federal authorities in Virginia released a U.S. Army veteran accused of fighting alongside the group after a secret plea deal. Eric Harroun, 31, had faced up to life in prison. But defense lawyers argued that Harroun traveled to Syria planning to fight with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and that fighting with the FSA was not a crime.

 

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