Army translator who pledged allegiance to Islamic State receives 4 years in prison

By KEVIN KRAUSE | The Dallas Morning News (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 26, 2016

DALLAS — A Mesquite man who lied to the FBI about pledging allegiance to an Islamic State terrorist leader was sentenced Wednesday to four years in federal prison.

Bilal Abood, 38, a former U.S. military translator, admitted he lied to the FBI about traveling to Syria and sending a tweet pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, or ISIS.

The only question for U. S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade on Wednesday was whether Abood’s motive was terrorism.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Penley argued that it was and asked for the maximum of eight years. He has said in court filings that Abood’s real reason for trying to travel abroad was to wage jihad and die a martyr.

Kinkeade said Abood made “abominable” comments in his tweets. But he agreed with his defense attorney that there was no evidence suggesting Abood was planning a terrorist attack.

The judge called Abood a “goofball” and an “odd character” who did some stupid things. But he said he thinks Abood is a “misguided kind of fellow who’s not going to act on things.”

Abood, 38, pleaded guilty in October to one count of making a false statement to a federal agency.

Abood told Kinkeade on Wednesday that he copied and pasted other people’s tweets to join online insults between the Sunni and Shia, Islam’s two largest groups. Abood, an Iraqi-born Sunni who is now an American citizen, said his tweets were intended to “piss off” the Shia posters.

“Sir, I love my country,” he told the judge. “I did more than a lot of people who live here.”

Abood’s attorney, Heath Hyde, said his client will probably get out of prison after serving about two years since Kinkeade gave him credit for the 14 months he’s already spent behind bars since his arrest.

Testimony on Wednesday revealed that the FBI initially considered hiring Abood to provide them with intelligence about what was going on in Syria. But an agent testified that after evaluating Abood, they determined he was not trustworthy and posed a threat.

The agent said Abood showed a pattern of deceit the entire time he’s known him.

“My office’s highest priority is and will remain the security of our homeland and the safety of all Americans,” U.S. Attorney John Parker in Dallas said in a statement.

Abood, a translator for American forces during the Iraq War, left Iraq in 2009 to take advantage of a rare opportunity for U.S. Army interpreters to become American citizens.

Abood, who speaks Arabic, said during testimony Wednesday that he was offered the interpreter job after warning U.S. troops that large weapons caches were being kept inside Iraqi schools.

He said he also worked as a U.S. military contractor on civil affairs projects, such as building schools and roads.

He joined the Army in 2010 and went through basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Abood said he trained U.S. troops on how to deal with Iraqi culture and customs. He said he left the Army because it wouldn’t allow him to return to Iraq to see his sick mother.

Abood said he settled in an apartment in Mesquite around 2010 where he lived with his common law wife and worked two jobs — one for UPS and the other as a security guard. He said he saved enough money to buy his mother a house in Iraq.
Abood said that when he tried to return to Iraq in 2013, he learned he was on the government’s no-fly list.

He was stopped at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and in San Antonio the first two times he tried to travel abroad. At the airport, FBI agents asked Abood about his travel plans and he told them he wanted to go to Iraq to visit his family.

The FBI advised him not to go to Syria.

But he later crossed into Mexico and traveled to Syria through Turkey, federal authorities said.

Abood said he wanted to fight with the Free Syrian Army, which opposes ISIS, against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Abood, who has a 15-year-old daughter, said he stayed in Syria with the Free Syrian Army but soon was unable to tell the good guys from the bad. The revolutionaries were accepting help from extremists because they needed weapons and supplies, he said.

“Why in the world are you injecting yourself into this war zone?” Kinkeade asked him Wednesday.

“I’m a human. I had to do something,” he said. “I thought with my heart.”

Abood said he left Syria after becoming disillusioned by what was going on and traveled to Iraq to buy his mother a house.

After staying in Finland for a time with his girlfriend, Abood said he traveled to Sweden where he contacted U.S. authorities in the American embassy. The FBI got him a “one-time downgrade” from the no-fly list so he could return to Texas.

The FBI said they wanted Abood back in Texas so they could monitor him. A camera was set up near his apartment and Abood was under surveillance, an agent said.

In July 2014, the FBI searched Abood’s computers and found that he pledged an oath to al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.

Kinkeade said Abood was granted U.S. citizenship and could live here free but “you decided to go back to that hellhole.”

“I don’t get it,” the judge said.

Kinkeade gave some parting advice to Abood after the sentencing.

“Quit being stupid.”

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