A 32-year-old Edgewood man admitted in federal court Tuesday that he pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and accepted payments from overseas to plan and help carry out a terrorist attack in the United States.
Mohamed Elshinawy pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to four terrorism-related counts.
Prosecutors say he communicated through social media in 2015 with a childhood friend who was a self-described member of ISIS, telling the friend he stood ready to travel to Syria through Turkey to live in Islamic State territories with his “religious wife,” the woman he lived with in Maryland.
Although Elshinawy never carried out an attack, he sought guidance from his friend on how to get or make an explosive device, according to a plea agreement between Elshinawy and the government.
Elshinawy, who is being held at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore, appeared in court with his attorneys and pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to ISIS; terrorism financing; and making false statements related to a terrorism matter.
“Yes, your honor,” Elshinawy answered throughout the hearing as Judge Ellen L. Hollander asked if he accepted the terms of his plea.
Joshua Treem, a defense attorney for Elshinawy, declined to comment after the hearing.
Elshinawy was the first person to be charged by federal prosecutors in Maryland for ties to ISIS. His arrest at his home in December 2015 came at a time of heightened concerns about terrorism. Just days earlier, a couple had killed 14 people in the San Bernadino, Calif., terrorist attack.
In court Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian described Elshinawy’s communications with his friend and the ways he accepted payments through online accounts.
Elshinawy had previously pleaded not guilty.
Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 28. The counts to which Elshinawy pleaded guilty carry a combined penalty of up to 68 years in prison.
The FBI began investigating Elshinawy, a U.S. national of Egyptian descent, in 2015 after the agency learned of someone in Egypt who was trying to send money to the United States, “possibly for nefarious purposes,” according to court filings.
Investigators eventually concluded that Elshinawy received nearly $9,000 from people he believed were associated with ISIS.
In interviews with FBI agents, Elshinawy said he didn’t actually plan to use the money to carry out an attack, according to court filings.
In the plea agreement discussed in court Tuesday, Elshinawy acknowledged that the government would have been able to prove he received money from an IT company based in Wales and Bangladesh to fund a terrorist attack in the United States.
He received about $8,700 between March and June 2015, the plea agreement states.
Most of the money came through his online financial account in the name of TheCheapMart LLC, a business he had registered in Maryland, according to the agreement. One of the transfers was disguised to appear as a purchase of printers rather than a cash transfer.
In an affidavit filed in court, an FBI agent described how Elshinawy received funds through eBay and PayPal transactions.
Neither side said in court Tuesday what sentence they would seek. But Treem told the judge that while Elshinawy agreed with the facts laid out by the government in the plea agreement, “we intend to put them into a much broader context” before sentencing.
Hollander scheduled three days of hearings beginning Oct. 24 for each side to present evidence to be used in sentencing.
Elshinawy’s lawyers previously tried to have the case thrown on out First Amendment grounds, saying his conversations about ISIS were protected by his right to free speech. Hollander rejected that argument.
Meanwhile, another Maryland man also faces charges connected with alleged support for ISIS. In October, a federal grand jury indicted Nelash Mohamed Das of Prince George’s County on a charge of attempting to provide material support and resources to the organization. He is accused of plotting to kill a member of the U.S. military. He has pleaded not guilty.