An Edgewood man was sentenced Friday in federal court to 20 years for accepting thousands of dollars from ISIS terrorists overseas to carry out an attack in the United States.
Mohamed Elshinawy, 33, had pleaded guilty in August to receiving money from the terror group in the summer of 2015. FBI agents uncovered Elshinawy’s plotting, interviewed him and kept him under close surveillance. They arrested him that winter.
The case — which touched three continents — is the only known example of the Syrian group sending money to an operative in the United States, and the sentence is among the longest issued in a Maryland terrorism case.
Federal prosecutor Christine Manuelian said that Elshinawy was tied to major ISIS figures in the Middle East and Europe.
“The FBI in Baltimore did their job and stopped an attack from occurring,” Manuelian said.
FBI agents and analysts who worked on the case packed the Baltimore courtroom for a hearing that lasted most of the day. They hugged in the corridor outside once the sentence was handed down.
Elshinawy, who was born in the United States but grew up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, made a rambling speech in his own defense, saying he felt he was treated badly by government agents whom he had tried to help. He also said he had turned his back on extremism.
“I am not a terrorist,” he said. “I am not.”
The FBI agents’ discovery in 2015 of funds making their way to Elshinawy set off a scramble inside the bureau. Investigators scrubbed through Elshinawy’s contacts, finances and social media posts to try to understand what might be going on.
They eventually tied Elshinawy to an ISIS-supporting friend from Egypt named Tamer El-Khodary, uncovering voluminous online chats between the two men. In one, Elshinawy said he had pledged allegiance to ISIS and asked El-Khodary to pass on the message to the group’s supreme leader.
Investigators also linked Elshinawy to a British and Bangladeshi company run by a planner with the terror group. That company was used to send most of the $8,700 Elshinawy admitted receiving.
“He is not someone who was simply sitting in a room doing nothing,” Manuelian said.
Agents approached Elshinawy in July 2015 and he agreed to talk to them, but Manuelian said they didn’t make an arrest so as to not disrupt British authorities’ investigation into the company over there. But in December, the planner who owned the British-Bangladeshi company was killed while fighting with ISIS and Elshinawy was taken into custody.
Joshua Treem, one of Elshinawy’s lawyers, said that in the months between when the FBI approached him and his arrest Elshinawy was under surveillance and agents didn’t find anything suspicious. At one point they became concerned when he bought a pressure cooker at a Walmart — they can be used to make bombs — only to find Elshinawy was using it to cook chicken.
“He may have had a plan, he may have articulated to ISIS that he was going to build a bomb, but he never did,” Treem said.
Rather than a savvy terror plotter, Treem portrayed his client as the least successful member of his otherwise highly accomplished family — a struggling newspaper deliveryman who lacked the grit to carry out an attack.
Some of Elshinawy’s activities remain unknown. Investigators discovered that he had been using encryption and other steps to cover his tracks online, moves that prosecutors say make it hard to know precisely what he might have been doing after the FBI first intervened.
Maneulian said there was no evidence that Elshinawy had renounced his support for terrorism.
“There is no indication that this defendant has changed his mindset,” she said.
Judge Ellen Hollander said that she heard little remorse from Elshinawy. While she said it was clear to her Elshinawy wanted to commit an attack, the judge said she wasn’t sure it would ever be known how close he came.
“He was playing with a very sophisticated group of people,” Hollander said.
Elshinawy also faces 15 years of supervised release once he completes his prison sentence.
Treem said he expects to appeal the sentence. Elshinawy’s legal team had fought unsuccessfully to stop the judge from using enhanced sentencing guidelines that are applied in terrorism cases.
Rachel Rowe, Elshinawy’s wife, spoke on his behalf. After a brief romance, Rowe converted to Islam and the pair married. They divorced after a year but then got married again. Rowe said Elshinawy had supported her through serious health problems that sometimes left her in the hospital for a month at a time.
“I love Mohamed so much,” she said. “He means the world to me.”
While Rowe spoke, Elshinawy looked away. But once the sentence was issued, he turned back to her and smiled.