RALEIGH — A Triangle man convicted of organizing a murder-for-hire against two law enforcement officers and another witness from the terror-related trial that sent him to prison got additional time – life – behind bars on Friday.
Hysen Sherifi, 29, who enlisted the help of his younger brother and a vulnerable Wake County special education teacher in the bizarre beheading scheme, was already serving a 45-year sentence for conspiracy to commit terror.
U.S. District Judge Earl Britt handed down Friday’s sentence in a case that pitted brother against brother and roiled a Triangle Muslim community already troubled by a federal roundup in July 2009 of what law enforcement contended was “a homegrown terror cell” willing to wage jihad at home and abroad.
Sherifi was serving out his earlier sentence in a Wilmington jail when he wheedled his brother, Shkumbin Sherifi, now 23, into helping him organize hits outside the prison.
Shkumbin Sherifi struck a deal with prosecutors that resulted in a three-year prison sentence for conspiring to commit murder-for-hire, an offense that could have netted him 10 years behind bars. Having served nearly 15 months, he is eligible for release in 21 months.
But he had to testify against his brother at a trial where Hysen Sherifi represented himself.
Nevine Aly Elshiekh, a 48-year-old special education teacher swept up into the scheme initially thinking she was helping the defendant raise money for his legal defense, was sentenced on Friday to 3-1/2 years in prison.
In handing down the sentences, Britt said he took into account the willingness of Elshiekh and Shkumbin Sherifi to negotiate plea deals with prosecutors attempting to stitch together a stronger case against Hysen Sherifi.
Sherifi, throughout his murder-for-hire trial and at the sentencing hearing on Friday, offered his views of Islam in Arabic and English. He told the judge he was fighting for the prophet Muhammad, that “all other religions were Satanic” and that he followed “the laws of Allah.”
“There can be no doubt that Hysen Sherifi, the defendant in this case, meets the definition of terrorist,” Britt said before sentencing the architect of the murder-for-hire plot and after noting the outcome of the 2011 terror-related trial. “It’s sad to see a man such as you, Mr. Sherifi, with such warped feelings about your religion. But in this nation, under our Constitution, every person has a right to worship any god he or she so chooses, or no god at all.”
Britt went on to describe what he thought was “the absolute worst part of the case.”
“You have absolutely destroyed the life of your own brother and of the young lady, Nevine Elshiekh,” Britt said.
Shkumbin Sherifi, one of four siblings, initially declined to help his older brother with the plot, according to testimony, but eventually agreed to gather money and meet with people outside prison, who unbeknownst to him were informants working with federal agents.
The younger Sherifi – a graduate of Sanderson High School who attended Wake Tech Community College before his arrest – ferried notes, photos and money into and out of prison on behalf of his brother.
As part of that effort, Shkumbin Sherifi had several encounters with Elshiekh, who at the time was a special education director at a Montessori school in the Triangle.
Elshiekh, a Raleigh resident, had attended the terror trial of Hysen Sherifi because one of his co-defendants had been a student of hers.
After the terror trial, Elshiekh and others from the Triangle Muslim community began writing the men in jail, offering encouragement and support.
Sherifi wrote back to Elshiekh, who, according to testimony from psychiatrists on Friday, was vulnerable because of a difficult divorce and not in a rational frame of mind because of an unusual cocktail of prescription drugs prescribed to her for depression.
The correspondence between Hysen Sherifi and Elshiekh initially focused on the case, but a more personal relationship developed over the weeks, and the two began to write and have phone calls about religion and love.
Sherifi began to romance Elshiekh, and soon she was helping him round up more than the character letters that she and his family planned to present at his terror-related sentencing hearing in February 2012.
Elshiekh told Britt on Friday that she was ashamed of her involvement and humiliated by actions that not only resulted in a prison sentence but brought grief and stress to her elderly parents and other family members.
“I wish I could turn back time,” Elshiekh said, “but I can’t do that.”
Britt, at the close of the four-hour hearing, said he hoped the sentences would bring closure to a case that had been tough for many.
“I hope we’re at the close of a series of events that have captivated the attention of this community, the state, and somewhat the nation,” Britt said. “It has had far-reaching consequences affecting the lives of many people. It has had an affect on the Muslim community.
“I hope these tensions will all have run their course and peace and good will will not only prevail in the Muslim community, but all the communities of the state.”