Three young Muslim men are scheduled to appear in federal court today, facing the possibility of the stiffest sentences ever in a North Carolina case of what prosecutors have described as "homegrown terrorism."
Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan, 22, Ziyad Yaghi, 21, and Hysen Sherifi, 24, are set to be sentenced today in the same New Bern courthouse where a jury convicted them in October. They were found guilty of taking part in a plot to attack unspecified targets overseas, a plan that also mentioned targeting the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
The men face possible life sentences.
But the starkness of their potential punishments contrasts sharply with the murkiness of their crimes. The men were convicted of conspiring, not acting, in terror schemes that never played out in the United States or abroad.
Yaghi's mother, Laila Yaghi, said, "My son is facing a life sentence for doing nothing. How did he get convicted for doing nothing?" Defense attorneys for the men say their clients are victims of a mentally unstable older man who, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, targeted impressionable youth to bolster his persona.
Leader Boyd cut a plea deal
That man, Daniel Patrick Boyd, 41, a drywall hanger and the alleged leader of the so-called homegrown terror cell, struck a deal with prosecutors. He agreed to testify against any of the accused who went to trial in exchange for dismissal of some of the charges against him.
He awaits sentencing in a case where two of the eight men indicted have not been tried or entered pleas. One is a fugitive, believed to be overseas. The other awaits trial.
Two of Boyd's sons, Dylan and Zak, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy charges. After testifying in the October trial as part of a plea arrangement with prosecutors, the Boyd brothers were given sentences of eight and nine years.
Attorneys for Yaghi, Hassan and Sherifi argue the Boyds were far more involved than their clients with the elder Boyd and his plans. The defense attorneys say their clients should not suffer harsher sentences simply because they exercised their rights to a trial rather than striking a plea arrangement.
Prosecutors contended at trial last year that Yaghi, Sherifi and Hassan were part of a terror cell rooted in Johnston County that traveled overseas, raised money and trained with weapons to support a jihadist plot to kill perceived enemies of Islam.
But their defense attorneys and Yaghi's mother present a different scenario.
None of the witnesses at the three-week trial, defense attorneys contend, implicated their clients in having much to do with Daniel Patrick Boyd's broad but unrealized plans, captured on tape by FBI informants.
Yaghi and Hassan did travel overseas in 2007, to Jordan, where Yaghi was born.
Though prosecutors contend those trips were efforts to make contact with others to commit terror abroad, Laila Yaghi described the trips quite differently.
"My son went to look for a wife," she said.
Laila Yaghi and defense attorneys describe Ziyad's involvement with Boyd as brief.
"Yaghi was a young 19-year-old boy when he was targeted by Daniel Boyd," his attorney, James M. Ayers II, wrote in a document arguing for a lenient sentence. "He was fatherless, young and impressionable. He had no paternal support or leadership and was taken with Boyd's stories of Afghanistan.Many in the community were taken with the stories and imposed upon Boyd a heroic persona.. ... There clearly was an overreach by Boyd of the youth. ... Boyd bolstered his own persona at the direct expense of his family and children. He was and remains a nightmare."
Laila Yaghi says that nightmare has haunted her for three years.
"I don't understand, honestly, how this happened," she said. "This whole thing is about how the prosecutors played with the jury's mind."
As prosecutors played FBI tapes of Daniel Patrick Boyd talking about training for and waging jihad, they held up pictures of her son.
Ziyad Yaghi has been in federal prison in Virginia since his conviction. His mother describes her son as a peaceful man who got angry once when she tried to kill ants in the kitchen.
"He still tells me he doesn't understand how this happened," Laila Yaghi said. "He's angry that Boyd testified against him and lied. He's angry that he's facing a life sentence and he did not do anything."