BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - Showing leniency to a New Jersey-born recruiter for the Islamic State group, a federal judge handed down a two-year sentence Wednesday in place of the 30-year term pushed by prosecutors.
U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein criticized the guidelines range as “excessively harsh” and said he believes the 24-year-old defendant who went by the nom de guerre Umm Nutella is “well on her way to rehabilitation.”
Sinmyah Amera Ceasar appeared before the 97-year-old Brooklyn judge today after admitting that she had double-crossed the government after an earlier plea deal.
Though her case is largely under seal, court records show that she was arrested in November 2016 at New York’s JFK Airport and charged with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
As part of a 2017 cooperation agreement, Ceasar began sharing information with the FBI about her Islamic State contacts. In April 2018, after claiming she was in poor health, Ceasar secured release from the Metropolitan Detention Center ahead of her sentencing only to get hit with an additional obstruction-of-justice charge for continuing to communicate with ISIS.
“I was foolish and ignorant,” Ceasar said today in court of her conduct. “I understand the actions that I took were wrong, and I’m not going to do it again.”
Caesar’s sentencing hearing has been underway since Monday, but she has not spoken in the proceedings before now. According to a letter from Ceasar’s brother that Judge Weinstein read aloud Wednesday, Ceasar was sexually and physically abused by her biological father, and she was put in foster care when her mother couldn’t care for her.
Wearing muted greenish-brown prison scrubs and a short haircut, Ceasar offered an explanation for the dangerous path she chose.
“The online culture in this era is affecting a lot of adults’ and youths’ mental health,” Ceasar said, reading from a prepared statement.
“I could have turned to drugs and alcohol, but I didn’t,” Ceasar added later. “I turned to social media. … I now need to have structure in my life.”
Ceasar’s federal defender Deirdre von Dornum applauded the leniency shown to her client.
“I think it’s a compassionate sentence that recognizes we can’t fight ISIS by not supporting our own people,” von Dornum said. “ISIS’ whole narrative ... is that they’re the only ones who care for isolated Muslims in our country.”
Ceasar had shared a similar sentiment earlier that morning.
“I was used by people who knew I was confused, vulnerable and depressed,” she said. “I was so anxious to find a way out of my situation.”
Weinstein spoke to Ceasar’s humanity in issuing the sentence, saying he found little reason to think she will pose any danger to national security after her release.
“The sentence will also save her as a human being,” he said, “because in this country a human being — even a convicted felon — is entitled to a happy life.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Richardson meanwhile said in court he thought the sentence was “extremely low.” In calling for a 30-year sentence, the government’s briefings portrayed Caesar as a kind of bridge between U.S.-based ISIS sympathizers and recruiters.
“The defendant repeatedly used numerous social media accounts and other electronic communication platforms to proclaim her support for ISIS and violent jihad, to recruit for ISIS and to attempt to help others join and fight for the group,” the government wrote. “She also created and disseminated on social media her own ISIS propaganda, including the ISIS logo next to a photo of then-President Obama with an exploding gun next to his temple.”
Caesar’s actions may not have led to a terrorist attack, but the government called it clear she “knew she was operating in a world and with people where catastrophic violence was not only possible, but often the express goal of the assistance she was providing.”
The root of Caesar’s unusual nom de guerre is unclear but may speak to online photos of ISIS fighters holding jars of the chocolate-hazelnut spread.
Caesar has already served almost 30 months in jail and said she wants to enter the medical field and work in art therapy. She is also passionate about rapping, singing and songwriting.
Following prison, Caesar will face eight years of probation, including a monthly report on her progress or problems, an educational and vocational program, and mental health treatment.
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