RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina father said Tuesday that federal prosecutors have falsely accused his son of planning to join an al-Qaida-linked militant group that was trying to topple Syria's Bashar Assad in that country's civil war.
Javed Sheikh of Cary rejected FBI statements that his 29-year-old son Basit Javed Sheikh was on his way to Lebanon, where he'd connect with members of the group Jabhat al-Nusra, when he was arrested at Raleigh's airport. The U.S. government considers the radical Islamic group a foreign terrorist organization
"These are false allegations," Javed Sheikh said in a brief telephone interview. "It's in the court and I hope they will justify the position and all these are false accusations. No reality in that."
Javed Sheikh says he has confidence that U.S. courts will handle the case fairly. Court documents describe Basit Sheikh as a Pakistan native with permanent, legal residency in the U.S.
Basit Sheikh was assigned two federal public defenders to represent him. They are unable to comment on Sheikh's behalf due to a rule established by local federal judges prohibiting them from discussing active cases, said Elizabeth Luck, a spokeswoman for the federal public defender's office in Raleigh.
Sheikh's case is at least the third this year in which the U.S. government has charged U.S. residents with providing material support to a terrorist group based on their alleged efforts to join Jabhat al-Nusrah.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, an 18-year-old from suburban Chicago, was arrested in April at O'Hare International Airport as he prepared for the first leg of a trip to join the group, authorities say. The American-born Tounisi pleaded not guilty.
In September, federal authorities in northern Virginia released a U.S. Army veteran accused of fighting alongside the jihadi group after a secret plea deal. Eric Harroun, 31, had faced up to life in prison. But defense lawyers argued there was confusion about which rebel group Harroun had joined, that Harroun traveled to Syria planning to fight with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and that fighting with the FSA was not a crime.
The Sheikh case points out the "hypocrisy" of prosecuting people who support an anti-Assad group the government judged as terrorists while the Obama administration favors other fighters in the same bloody conflict, said Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
The anti-Assad forces include some "that are out-and-out terrorist groups, that are designated by our state department as linked to al-Qaida. Some of them aren't," Addicott said. "The hypocrisy is that you're going to prosecute someone for taking up arms against the Assad regime that may simply be caught up and labeled as a member of one of these Islamic groups."
Sheikh told an FBI informant he was going to join Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, where a 3-year-old civil war has killed more than 100,000 people, an FBI agent said in a sworn affidavit.
In August, Sheikh began an online relationship with an undercover FBI employee on a Facebook page promoting Islamic extremism, the affidavit said. Sheikh told the covert informant he had traveled to Turkey last year hoping to join the fight in Syria, but became dispirited by his experience with people who claimed to be part of the Free Syrian Army.
If convicted, Sheikh could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and fined $250,000.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio