ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – The trial of Nicholas Young, the first police officer ever charged in the United States with providing material support to the Islamic State, is scheduled to get underway next week.
Young , who worked for the Metro Transit Police Department in Washington, D.C., was arrested in Aug. 2016, on charges of providing material support to the Islamic State group and lying to FBI investigators.
Young is accused of purchasing technology-related items to send to the ISIS operatives so they could evade authorities when contacting one another.
But instead of speaking to members of the Islamic State group, prosecutors say, Young was actually in touch with FBI informants and agents with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington.
The police officer was arrested after he gave $245 worth of gift cards to one of those informants.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema warned both Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg and defense attorney Linda Moreno that they have only to the end of this week to wrap up loose ends in their pretrial preparations. The jury selection process will get underway promptly on Monday morning, Brinkema said.
The judge also announced she is calling an expanded pool of potential jurors — perhaps as many as 50 — because of Young’s decision to grant an exclusive interview to the Washington Post this past summer.
In the article, Young shared some of his experiences with government agents leading up to his arrest last year, and defended his interests in white supremacy and radical Islam. The story also featured pictures of Young, including one that showed a large Nazi SS unit tattoo on his arm.
“I’m extremely concerned about the pretrial publicity and the hearsay elements,” Brinkema said.
The “unusual set of circumstances” around Young, she said, would undoubtedly make his a tough case for jurors to consider. In addition to the interview, jurors would also be tasked with reconciling Young’s diverse and seemingly contradictory affiliations.
According to court documents, Young had a license plate on his car featuring the name of a pre-Nazi, ultra-right wing German political party, and he used Adolf Hitler’s birthday for an online password.
These facts, coupled with Young having been a police officer for 13 years, could make understanding him and his actions difficult for jurors, said Michael Williams, a social psychologist at Georgia State University.
“We all have identity theory, the notion that we harbor several identities,” Williams said. “We can be parents, employees, students, teachers. We can be all of these things in different contexts. That [Young] would have different identities is not unusual, per se. The interesting thing is how he, or anyone, can resolve what appear to be certain contradictory identities.”
For example, Williams said, patriotism is often associated with law enforcement and the fairness required of the person administering the law, and it tends to run counter with what most people conceive of being a white supremacist.
“But humans have a wonderful capacity to rationalize and justify behavior in the name of self-esteem,” he said. “It’s like a cognitive sleight of hand.”
As the trial unfolds, federal prosecutors are expected to try explain that “sleight of hand” and will argue Young was motivated by violence and used his knowledge of Islam and white supremacy to foment terror more broadly at home and potentially, elsewhere.
The FBI first contacted Young in 2010 while investigating his acquaintance, Zachary Chesser. Chesser was later convicted of attempting to join an al-Qaeda offshoot and for threatening Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park.
Young stayed under FBI surveillance through 2016. During that time, prosecutors say Young once told undercover officers he wanted to throw his enemies into the bottom of a lake with their heads encased in cinderblock. To other informants, prosecutors say, he joked of sneaking weapons into the very courthouse he would eventually stand trial in. He also joked about torturing and killing FBI agents, prosecutors said.
Two trips to Libya also set off warning bells for the FBI. Young claims he went to help Libyans fight a civil war and oust then leader, Muammar Gaddafi. But as he returned to the U.S. in 2012, two FBI agents met him at the airport.
The Justice Department considered arresting him at the time, but reportedly decided against it. But the agency didn’t stop watching him.
In 2014, a man named Mohammad approached Young and quickly befriended him. Young claims Mohammad asked for gift cards, used to make phone calls, or buy data for text messages, so he could communicate with his family overseas.
Prosecutors claims Young knew exactly what the cards were for: connecting ISIS fighters, not estranged family members.
Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, has testified numerous times before Congress on the steady uptick of homegrown extremism.
“The bottom line is this: abstract beliefs not connected to a crime are one thing. But when these beliefs help frame the motive of the crime, they’re admissible,” Levine said. “The issue here is making sure we’re not prejudicing a jury by allowing tangential or less relevant evidence to be brought in for something much more nefarious.”