SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The 20-year-old man from the Lodi, Calif., area accused of trying to travel overseas to serve alongside Islamic fighters in Syria and Iraq is undergoing continued mental testing as prosecutors and his defense lawyers seek a resolution to his case.
Nicholas Michael Teausant, an Acampo man arrested in March as he tried to cross into Canada aboard an Amtrak bus, made a brief appearance Tuesday in federal court in Sacramento, where prosecutors said the case involved classified information.
“This case has more complexity to it than the average case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jean Hobler told U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez.
Teausant is one of a handful of U.S. citizens accused in recent months of planning to go overseas and join the Islamic State, a group that at the time of his arrest had garnered little public attention in the United States.
Since then, however, the fierce militant force has acquired a much larger presence on the world stage as its fighters have overrun portions of Iraq and their tactics have been denounced as brutal and inhuman, even by other Islamic militant groups.
Most recently, the United States launched air attacks against IS troops in Iraq, a move that sparked the release Tuesday of a video purporting to show an IS militant beheading kidnapped American journalist James Foley. The video, labeled “A Message to America,” includes a claim by the militants that the beheading is in retaliation for the American airstrikes.
Experts say more than half a dozen American citizens have been charged in cases similar to Teausant’s, and FBI Director James Comey said last week there are numerous Americans thought to be fighting overseas in support of IS and its goal to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
“It’s been alleged that there are dozens,” said Brian Levin, an expert on terror groups and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Americans are lured into supporting the group through the Internet and assurances that they are helping people oppressed by their own Syrian government, Levin said.
“The images of an autocratic state committing violence against hundreds of thousands of citizens is something that resonates with idealistic youths who are unanchored, yet exposed to a radical version of faith,” Levin said.
“When you extend out a net, you’re going to catch all kinds of flies, some of whom don’t have a lot of competence,” Levin said of recruiting efforts by IS and related terror groups. “You don’t know who’s going to be the one who’s successful.”
A month after Teausant was apprehended, a 19-year-old Colorado woman, Shannon Maureen Conley, was arrested and accused of plotting to travel to Syria after corresponding with a man on the Internet who purported to be an active member of IS, documents filed in federal court in Denver allege.
The court documents say Conley, who became engaged to the man, sought military training through the U.S. Army Explorers program, a group affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America that provides military skills to young men and women.
She was arrested after trying to fly to Turkey in April, court documents state, and initially pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Since then, a plea bargain has been worked out, and Conley’s change of plea has been set for Sept. 10.
So far, Teausant is standing by his not-guilty plea. He was ordered Tuesday to return to court in October after undergoing additional mental testing.
A California National Guard washout and community college student, Teausant had hoped to hook up with IS in Syria and rise quickly through the ranks, according to federal court documents that charge him with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
A confidential government informant who befriended Teausant as part of an undercover FBI investigation indicated in court papers that Teausant had boasted alternately of wanting to overthrow the U.S. government and bomb the Los Angeles subway system and his infant daughter’s day care center.
The government has portrayed him as a serious threat, insisting successfully that he remain in custody at the Sacramento County jail because he poses a threat to the public.
His lawyers have described him as someone who could not possibly carry out his boasts, saying in court filings that he is “a lonely, mentally ill young man.”
“In theory, this could be a violent offense,” the defense lawyers wrote of the charges their client faces. “In reality, Nick couldn’t provide material support to a pup tent.”
©2014 The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.