HOUSTON (CN) — A Houston man who has dedicated himself to dissuading other Muslim youth from joining terrorist groups after serving 18 months in federal prison for providing support to the Islamic State was resentenced Wednesday to 12 years.
Asher Khan, 27, said at his second resentencing hearing Wednesday he was depressed, feeling isolated and alienated and searching for a purpose for his life after moving from his suburban Houston hometown in 2013 to live with relatives in Australia.
He found his purpose, he said, in the Islamic State terrorist group, IS, duped by its propaganda that it had a noble aim of uniting the people of Syria and Iraq to take down Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of war crimes, authorizing chemical attacks that killed dozens of his own people, amid an ongoing civil war that started in 2011.
Khan said he could not bring himself to believe all the news reports at the time about IS carrying out mass executions and regularly beheading people, though they posted videos of these killings online.
“I thought if they were people of God they couldn’t possibly be doing any of that, I shut down all differing views and I believed it was false,” said Khan, bending his tall frame to read from a prepared statement because his wrists were shackled.
The FBI began investigating Khan in 2014 after getting a warrant for the Facebook page of his high school friend, Muslim convert Sixto Ramiro Garcia, and reading about their plans to travel to Turkey and meet an IS recruiter who said he would help them enter neighboring Syria to join the terrorist organization.
Khan made it to Turkey but his family lied to him that his mother was hospitalized and convinced him to return to Houston to be with her.
Garcia and Khan stayed in contact over the following months with Garcia giving updates on his immersion into jihadism. Garcia told of his training in a terrorist boot camp where he was equipped with an AK-47 and his involvement in a firefight, while Khan offered several times to give him money.
Because Garcia appeared to be fighting for a different militia, Khan encouraged him in July 2014 to try to join IS. Weeks later, Garcia said he had joined the group. But Garcia stopped communicating and his mother got word in December 2014 he had died fighting with IS in Iraq.
Following Khan’s arrest in 2015, federal prosecutors dropped five charges against him in exchange for his guilty plea to one count of providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
With prosecutors pushing for a 15-year sentence, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes sentenced Khan to 18 months, apparently swayed by the defense's arguments that Khan was young and naïve.
But a Fifth Circuit panel agreed with prosecutors the sentence was procedurally unreasonable because Hughes had concluded a terrorism enhancement did not apply and remanded for Khan to be resentenced.
Khan had already served his sentence by the time of his resentencing in December 2019.
Hughes drew the Fifth Circuit’s ire when he again sentenced Khan to 18 months, effectively time served, with a three-judge panel of the appellate court determining Hughes had “characterized Khan’s conduct effectively so as to contradict the facts Khan admitted in his plea agreement” and made remarks evincing his prejudice against the government as a party in the case.
“He compared the government with IS, referred to its attorneys as ‘thugs,’ and alluded to the Department of Justice as unethical,” Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Grady Jolly wrote in a unanimous opinion issued in May of this year, in which the panel once again remanded the case for resentencing and ordered it be reassigned to another judge.
As Sixto Garcia’s mother and 30 of Khan’s friends and family looked on from the gallery, U.S. District Judge Charles Eskridge made clear at the start of Wednesday’s hearing he was bound by the Fifth Circuit’s directive.
“The Fifth Circuit has said this sentence was never done properly … so I’m going to start from scratch,” Eskridge said.
Federal prosecutor Alamdar Hamdani laid out the government’s case, noting that in 2014, the same year Khan began urging Garcia to travel with him to Syria to join IS, the terrorist group carried out a mass slaughter of 300 members of a Sunni Muslim tribe.
“This is the ISIS Khan attempted to join. This is the ISIS to whom he delivered a fighter,” Hamdani said, pressing Eskridge to give Khan the statutory maximum 15-year sentence for the one count he admitted to in his plea deal.
David Adler, Khan’s court-appointed attorney, said Khan’s naivete was on display in the Facebook messages he exchanged with Garcia.
In one of them, Adler said, Khan asked Garcia, “’Hey do you want to join ISIS?’ Like ‘Hey do you want to go shopping today?’”
Adler emphasized Khan was just 19 when he got involved with IS and said he deserved no more than 5 years behind bars. “Teenage boys make decisions that are mind-boggling and that’s what happened here. The man he was then is not the man he is today,” he said.
Before Wednesday’s hearing, Eskridge reviewed 24 character letters from Khan’s supporters in which many of them spoke of him warning other Muslim students about the dangers of radicalization while pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Houston.
Khan obtained his degree and got a job as a software engineer after serving his 18-month sentence. He told Judge Eskridge when he got out of prison, the local Muslim community wanted nothing to do with him and he felt ashamed.
“They were scared,” Khan said. “When I realized Sixto passed away … that drove me to visit mosques in my area and student associations to tell people you can’t just ignore it. It could be your child next. That’s what drove me. I pushed back despite my embarrassment.”
But prosecutor Hamdani cautioned the judge to take Khan’s counseling of others “with a very large grain of salt.”
“His only deradicalization effort is a YouTube video of an interview he gave in November 2019,” Hamdani added.
Eskridge kept circling back to the appellate court opinion that remanded the case for a third sentencing. “The Fifth Circuit said the sentence didn’t reflect the severity of the crime,” he said, before handing Khan 144 months and 15 years of supervised release following his prison term.
“I imposed that sentence because of the decisions you made back in 2014,” Eskridge explained. “It doesn’t mean you can’t live a productive, meaningful life, wherever you are. You can be of service to your fellow inmates while you are incarcerated. The test of a man is how he handles adversity.”
He then apologized to Hamdani and the entire Justice Department for Judge Hughes’ comments about them.
“I apologize for the intemperate, demeaning and bullying comments directed at you and other Justice Department attorneys,” Eskridge said.
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