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CHICAGO — It had the trappings of an actual extremist website: Photos of gun-toting fighters and a flowery exhortation to, “Come and join your lion brothers ... fighting under the true banner of Islam.”
Except, it wasn’t what it seemed.
It was a sham site constructed and controlled by the FBI with the aim of snaring terrorist wannabes in the virtual world before they could carry out real-world harm.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, was arrested last week on a terrorism charge stemming from the sting operation. He made a brief court appearance Tuesday in federal court in Chicago.
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Tounisi, a U.S. citizen from Aurora, is charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorism for seeking to join al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is fighting the Syrian Bashar Assad regime.
Critics have said the use of such sites raises questions about whether authorities are overreaching, wooing impressionable youth to contemplate crimes that otherwise wouldn’t cross their minds.
But authorities note that it’s not visiting such sites or fantasizing about acts of terrorism that’s the crime. The crime is acting on those fantasies and taking specific steps make it happen.
Tounisi’s steps, authorities say, included trying to board a plane in Chicago.
He was arrested at O’Hare International Airport on Friday as he prepared to start the first leg of a trip that authorities allege he hoped would hook him up with an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria.
Tounisi is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he faces a maximum 15-year prison term. His attorney, Molly Armour, declined comment on Tuesday.
Despite his orange jail garb and shackled ankles, Tounisi looked younger than his 18 years at his court appearance, during which a judge delayed a decision on bond.
It was only months ago that he is accused of coming across the website.
What he saw written across the home page, allegedly signaled to Tounisi that he had found what he’d been looking for. “A Call for Jihad in Syria,” it said, according to the federal complaint.
The site not only offered to hook up would-be fighters with terrorists, it even offered advice on how users could cover their Internet tracks from law enforcement, the complaint says.
As some point, Tounisi allegedly took the bait.
In an April 1, 2013, email to an FBI agent posing as a terrorist recruiter, Tounisi comes across as earnest and frank, including about how some might see his youth and 5-foot-6 stature as an impediment.
“Concerning my fighting skills, to be honest, I do not have any,” he allegedly wrote. “I’m very small ... physically but I pray to Allah that he makes me successful.”
While he is accused of taking steps to further his desire to fight in Syria, his online searches also seem to convey some concern about legal implications.
His Internet searches, according to the complaint, included the phrases “providing material support what does it mean” and “Terrorism Act 2000.”