A Glencoe, Minn., man will serve more than three years in prison for lying to the FBI about contact he had with recruiters for the ISIS terror group, an offense that his attorney said had more to do with his mental illness than jihadist radicalization.
Abdul Raheem Ali-Skelton, 23, admitted last year to lying about his communications over social media with two British nationals, who recruited for the terrorist group.
But it was another episode that drew him back into the news and eventually into federal custody: He threatened to blow up a Walgreens. That incident stemmed from a drunken "jealous rant" after seeing his wife with another man at the store, his attorney, Robert Richman said.
Federal prosecutors were seeking a lengthier prison sentence of five years.
The Walgreens incident represented not only Ali-Skelton's tendency to spout off, but to act out, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats. Incarcerating him for several years would help protect the public, Kovats argued.
"He maintained secret covert contact with the worst of the worst of terrorist organizations," Kovats said. "From the government's perspective, he's not ready to be out on the streets at this time."
On Tuesday at his sentencing hearing in St. Paul, Ali-Skelton addressed U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank as he apologized for his mistakes and distanced himself from the brutal ideology espoused by groups like ISIS.
"I've never supported terrorism, and I am not a terrorist," he said. "I'm sorry I said and did things that caused people to question that."
Richman, his attorney, agreed his client wasn't a terrorist — and took it a step further: "He is a B.S. artist who knew that by alluding to ISIS he would provoke a response," Richman argued in a court document filed before the sentencing.
A psychologist who evaluated Ali-Skelton at Richman's request concluded he had histrionic personality disorder, which made him want to be the center of attention. Communicating with ISIS, Richman said, made his client feel important.
Richman also contested the findings of German de-radicalization expert Daniel Koehler, who at the court's request evaluated Ali-Skelton and found he had developed a "Salafi-Jihadi identity" between 2014 and 2016 and had a low to medium risk of reoffending.
Richman said when his client was approached by the FBI in 2015 about his contact on social media with the ISIS recruiters, Ali-Skelton panicked. And he concocted an idea that if he could discover a terrorist attack the men were planning, he could pass that information along to the FBI and save the day.
Richman also drew comparisons to a vast ISIS conspiracy case that recently concluded with the sentencing of nine young Twin Cities men. While some were sentenced to decades in prison, Richman noted that one who defendant cooperated with the government received a relatively light sentence of time served and supervised release.
"These defendants were attempting to join ISIS to travel to Syria and provide support for a terrorist organization," he said.
In contrast, Richman said his client rejected violence, was not planning to join ISIS and had no intentions to obstruct an investigation.
Ali-Skelton was born William Sebastian Skelton in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and was raised Catholic. In his teens, he converted to Islam and changed his name when he turned 18.
He enjoyed rapping and had performed the night of the Walgreens incident. Ali-Skelton pleaded guilty to the state court charge of making terroristic threats and was sentenced to time served — the 28 days he had been in custody — and three years of probation.
In federal court Tuesday, Frank said Ali-Skelton's mental health problems serve as an explanation for his actions, and perhaps a vulnerability, but not a set of circumstances that should excuse or justify his conduct.
The judge said his sentence of 38 months would promote respect for the law. He also agreed to recommend a substance-abuse rehabilitation program for Ali-Skelton while he is locked up.
Frank told Ali-Skelton he hopes he will make good on his word to live a peaceful life and be the best father he can be.
"You have a beautiful daughter," Frank said, referring to Ali-Skelton's 3-year-old girl, who lay asleep in her mother's arms in the courtroom gallery. "Usually that motivates people more than anything."