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Knoxville man charged with aiding ISIS just a harmless nerd, his lawyer says

Benjamin Alan Carpenter, dubbed ''Abu Hamza,'' was arrested in Knoxville, Tenn., on March 24, 2021, after a grand jury indicted him on charges of attempting to provide material support and resources to the Islamic State group.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 6, 2021

 

Prosecutors say a Tennessee man has been helping spread Islamic State propaganda, but a defense attorney told a judge the man is living with his mother and isn’t a threat.

Benjamin Alan Carpenter, dubbed “Abu Hamza,” was arrested in Knoxville, Tenn., on March 24 after a grand jury indicted him on charges of attempting to provide material support and resources to ISIS, the Justice Department announced Monday, following a detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra C. Poplin.

Carpenter remains in custody pending Poplin’s decision on whether to hold him until his trial, which is set for June 1.

Carpenter is the leader of Ahlut-Tawhid Publications, which translates and publishes pro-ISIS content and official ISIS media in English, the Justice Department said.

He provided English translations of ISIS content to someone he believed was affiliated with the terrorist group, but who was actually an undercover FBI employee, it said.

But Carpenter has not traveled to meet with ISIS members outside the U.S. and mostly works from a bedroom in his mother’s home in Knox County, his attorney said at the hearing, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

“Assistant Federal Defender Benjamin Sharp countered Monday that Carpenter was part nerd, part loser, but hardly a danger in need of pretrial detention,” the newspaper reported.

Sharp described his client as someone who spends most days on a computer in the bedroom, where he’s lived for more than two years since breaking up with a girlfriend. He has no bank account, no car and works a few hours a week as a pet sitter.

Carpenter’s mother has promised to shut down her internet, get rid of her cellphone and watch over her son if the judge lets him out of pretrial detention, the newspaper reported. He previously chatted with ISIS online, at least once using her computer, prosecutors said.

Carpenter has been under FBI scrutiny since at least 2015 and is on the no-fly list, the local newspaper reported.

“We’ve known about him five years,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Casey Arrowood said at the hearing. “He’s evolved over time.”

He’s grown more radicalized and popular among terrorist leaders seeking to recruit American Muslims, Arrowood said.

The media company he founded produces videos and newsletters promoting terrorist causes, idolizing terrorist leaders as celebrities and treating beheadings as justice, prosecutors said.

Fluent in Arabic, Carpenter provides translation services and “regularly communicated” with ISIS leaders and recruiters through encrypted messaging services, Arrowood said.

The charge arises from his activities sometime at the end of January and early February, an unsealed indictment states. The newspaper reported that he translated a violent ISIS training video.

The FBI has been investigating Carpenter’s media business since a 2015 raid of the Virginia home where he’d been living with his then-girlfriend, Sharp said.

“It feels disingenuous to argue he’s a threat today, but not those other times,” Sharp said.

Prosecutors, however, believe Carpenter “has a plan to flee,” Arrowood said.

Poplin is expected to decide within days whether to keep Carpenter in custody.

If found guilty at trial, he could face up to 20 years in prison, the Justice Department said.

 

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland