This story and headline were updated Friday evening after the court ran out of time because of the need for an interpreter and the length of the cross-examination. So the sentencing will resume at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8.
A young Syrian refugee who admitted that he plotted to blow up a North Side church in the name of ISIS did so in part because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress after living through his country’s civil war, his lawyers argued at sentencing Friday in U.S. District Court.
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Horan heard testimony all day over the fate of Mustafa Alowemer as the parties sparred over how much federal prison time he deserves.
The judge had previously granted a delay to give prosecutors time to review a defense report indicating that Alowemer, 21 when he was arrested in 2019, suffers from psychological trauma and had been influenced by online rhetoric about the Syrian conflict when he plotted to bomb Legacy International Worship Center.
Alowemer admitted that he intended to destroy the church with a backpack bomb in support of ISIS and pledged his allegiance to the group in a videotaped statement.
He coordinated with sympathizers who turned out to be undercover FBI agents and sources working with the bureau. In addition to blowing up the church, prosecutors said Alowemer intended to set a second bomb to kill “infidel” police as they responded to the first bomb.
Prosecutors are seeking 20 years behind bars. The defense is asking for a term between 78 and 97 months.
Alowemer’s public defenders, Andrew Lipson and Sam Saylor, said their client had suffered greatly during the Syrian conflict before coming to the U.S. in 2016 and then plunged into the “deep recesses of the internet” to connect with his homeland from his bedroom in Northview Heights.
“During his bouts of depression, he would lock himself in his room, unable to eat and obsessively combing through online information about the conflict,” they said. “He began following Facebook accounts committed to the fight against the Assad-Syrian regime, which included the ISIS forces opposing the Assad regime.”
Teachers at Brashear High School saw his mood swings, the lawyers said, and one teacher recalled him showing her photos of bloody bodies of murdered relatives. On Feb. 12, 2019, he learned that family members had been killed in Syria.
“A teacher overheard him say he wanted to kill himself,” the lawyers said.
They said he told the school staff that he felt guilty living in the U.S. while his people were dying in Syria.
A little less than a month later, the lawyers said, an undercover FBI agent posing as an ISIS member befriended him on Facebook, setting in motion the crimes to which he later pleaded guilty.
Lipson and Saylor said their client deserves leniency because of his emotional condition at the time of the crime, his “harsh” pretrial confinement during the pandemic and their contention that Alowemer “fell prey” to the sophisticated social media influence of ISIS in recruiting disaffected young men to its cause.
The lawyers also argued that a term of 78 to 97 months, followed by deportation, would be consistent with similar cases across the U.S.
The U.S. attorney’s office had previously said it would seek 30 years to life but has since reduced the term it wants to 20 years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song said the evidence is clear that Alowemer was a devoted follower of ISIS before any contact with the FBI and was “fixated” on its campaign to establish a violent caliphate.
She said he “enthusiastically” committed himself to ISIS before even leaving Syria, came up with the bomb plot while here and intended to carry it out with the hopes of triggering copy-cat bombings across the U.S. by like-minded terrorists.
“The fact that the fortuitous introduction of undercover FBI agents prevented execution of defendant’s violent plan with actual ISIS members is not mitigation and does make his crime any less serious,” Ms. Song said.
The government was to present an expert witness, Colin Clarke, to describe the origins and ideology of ISIS to provide context for Alowemer’s violent mindset.
In previous testimony, the FBI said Alowemer’s bomb plot would have obliterated the church and surrounding area, killing nearby residents, but that he didn’t care who died.
Agents said Alowemer indicated that his ultimate goal was to return to Syria and die on the battlefield fighting with ISIS.
In a recording he made of himself, Alowemer is heard chanting: “I am waiting for paradise.”
Torsten covers the courts for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.