NEW BERN, N.C. — A federal judge sentenced three Triangle men Friday to prison for their roles in a terrorist cell that authorities said plotted attacks on a Marine base in Virginia and foreign targets.
Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan, Ziyad Yaghi and Hysen Sherifi were convicted after a month-long trial that started around the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Hassan, Yaghi and Sherifi were part of a group of eight men who federal investigators say raised money, stockpiled weapons and trained in preparation for jihadist attacks against American military targets and others they deemed enemies of Islam.
Sherifi was sentenced to 45 years in prison for conspiring to provide material support to terrorism and conspiring to carry out attacks overseas, two counts of firearms possession and conspiring to kill federal officers or employees. The last charge stems from discussions he had with Daniel Patrick Boyd, the leader of the terrorist cell, about attacking the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps base.
Yaghi was sentenced to more than 31 years in prison and ordered to pay an $8,000 fine for conspiring to provide material support to terrorism and conspiring to carry out attacks overseas.
Hassan, who was acquitted of conspiring to carry out attacks overseas, received the maximum 15-year sentence and a $5,000 fine for providing material support to terrorists. In November, Senior U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan denied his request to override the jury's verdict and find him innocent or else order a new trial.
"I am no terrorist," Hassan said repeatedly in court, noting that he had done some "stupid" things as a youth but had grown in the past two years.
He apologized to his family and friends, thanked Allah for support and said he was proud to be a member of a faith that promotes peace and justice.
Flanagan said her court has received many letters from people who wanted to be heard before sentencing in support of one or all of the men. Their convictions have stirred the Muslim community in the Raleigh area where they lived.
Defense attorneys for all three men argued for lesser sentences since they were convicted of discussions of terrorism rather than terrorist acts. The government's case, they said, amounted to prosecuting young Muslims who did little more than watch jihadist videos on computers and trade "stupid" Facebook posts in support of those fighting Americans overseas.
"None of the counts of conviction involve any form of actual, physical or mental harm to any other person," Sherifi's defense attorney Robert McAfee said in a court document filed Tuesday. "It is the discretion given to this court that elevates it, and our criminal justice system as a whole, above tribal vengeance or, frankly, Islamist extremism."
Boyd, a convert to Islam, pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in February and has yet to be sentenced. Two of his sons pleaded guilty to similar charges and were sentenced to eight years and nine years in prison.
Another defendant, Anes Subasic, is set to be tried separately, while an eighth indicted man is at large and believed to be in Pakistan.