PHILADELPHIA — — With a full math and science scholarship to the Johns Hopkins University and accolades for his writing, Howard County's Mohammad Hassan Khalid seemed ready to continue the American dream his father embarked on years ago when he brought the family from Pakistan.
But instead, on Friday the 18-year-old Khalid became one of the youngest people ever convicted in federal court of conspiracy to aid terrorists. He could receive up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine at his sentencing, which has not been scheduled. He also faces deportation.
"He's going to get kicked out of the country for something he started doing when he was 15 or 16 years old," said Jeffrey M. Lindy, Khalid's attorney, after a brief plea hearing at U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. "It's a tragedy, an absolute tragedy."
Khalid, a Pakistani citizen raised in Ellicott City with his three siblings, was secretly arrested in July last year, when he was still a minor, and charged with participating in a plot to wage a violent, Muslim holy war in Europe and beyond. The case became public in October, after Khalid turned 18.
He pleaded guilty to the charges Friday, admitting that he had used the Internet to align with an Algerian man, who was indicted with him, and a suburban Pennsylvanian woman known as "Jihad Jane," starting in 2008 or 2009. He believed he would be part of a "professional organized team," prosecutors said Friday, trained by al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations to "kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country."
"This investigation and the guilty plea announced [Friday] underscores the continuing threat we face from violent extremism and radicalism, both from within our country and from across the world," FBI Special Agent in Charge George C. Venizelos, said in a statement. "These threats can emerge from anywhere and from anyone, from individuals and groups in the farthest reaches of the globe or from those in the United States sitting in the perceived safety of their own homes."
Khalid, who graduated from Mount Hebron High School last year, is one of three young Maryland men recently detained on terrorism charges, a troubling trend that appears to belie claims that radicalization is rare in America.
Antonio Benjamin Martinez, 22, who lived at addresses in Gwynn Oak and Windsor Mill, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison last month for trying to blow up a Catonsville military recruiting center. And in December, 24-year-old Craig Benedict Baxam, an Army private from Laurel, was arrested in Kenya while on his way to live with an al-Qaida-linked group.
Both men were recent converts to Islam when authorities say they began using the Internet to promote terrorist causes. Much of Khalid's background is still publicly unknown, though details are expected to be revealed at sentencing.
He lived in an apartment near U.S. 29 and U.S. 40 with his family, none of whom attended Friday's hearing. His father emigrated from Pakistan years ago, in search of work and the best schools before bringing his family over, defense attorneys have said. He settled on Howard County, where he raised his four children to value education above most everything else, the attorneys have said.
Khalid excelled at Mount Hebron, where he was on the honor roll and won an honorable mention in a city writing contest for an essay titled "Voices Around the World." He also earned a full scholarship to Hopkins and planned to enroll there last fall, but withdrew after his arrest.
The indictment against him said he used the Internet to recruit volunteers and solicit funds for jihad, or holy war, in Europe, in conjunction with others and under the direction of Colleen R. LaRose, known as "Jihad Jane." He also tried to cover up LaRose's online activity after the FBI questioned her, according to the indictment. LaRose pleaded guilty to her role in the scheme, which included plans to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had offended Muslims, and is awaiting sentencing.
Khalid's Algerian co-defendant, Ali Charaf Damache, 46, is being held in Ireland on unrelated charges and has not been arraigned in the terrorism case, according to online court records.
Khalid was calm and quiet in court Friday, wearing a jail-issue jumpsuit that was at least two sizes too big and two inches too short for his reedy frame. He spoke in a quiet clear voice, briefly answering the judge's questions. "Yes" he understood the rights he was giving up, and "yes," he pleaded guilty because he, in fact, was.
After the hearing, Khalid's lawyer said it was the "saddest" event of his career.
"He ruined his life," Lindy said. "He ruined his life."