In a rare move for terror cases, a federal judge agreed Thursday to release on home confinement an Aurora teenager charged with seeking to travel abroad and join an al-Qaida-linked militant group in war-torn Syria.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, of Aurora, was arrested at O'Hare International Airport last month as, authorities allege, he prepared for the first leg of a trip to join Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
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In arguing for continued detention, prosecutors also noted Thursday that Tounisi had allegedly spoken with a friend of his last year about bombing targets in Chicago. Tounisi is not charged in that case, though the friend, Adel Daoud, was and is in jail awaiting trial.
After announcing his surprise ruling, the otherwise soft-spoken U.S. magistrate judge leaned forward on his bench Thursday and raised his voice, telling the teenager he should take the allegations seriously.
"This is no game, Mr. Tounisi. OK?" Judge Daniel Martin told him.
The slight, short Tounisi stood before the judge in orange jail garb and slippers, flanked by U.S. marshals. Some 30 friends and relatives sat on spectator benches; several cried after the judge ruled.
After ruling, the judge stayed his own order for 24 hours to give prosecutors a chance to appeal, which they announced later Thursday they would do. A hearing in the matter was set for Friday.
Approving the release of anyone accused on terrorism charges is uncommon, said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor and now private attorney in Chicago.
"It's incredibly extraordinary," he said. "It's usually a different realm with terrorist suspects. They're not viewed as standard criminals but as enemies of the U.S."
Pressure on a judge to hold a terrorist suspect would be all the greater now, said Turner, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Prosecutor William Ridgway had argued that Tounisi posed a threat to the community, saying he sought to hook up with the al-Qaida-linked group in Syria even after his friend Daoud's arrest.
"One would think that would be a wake-up call," Ridgway said about the arrest. "But it didn't deter him."
Tounisi persisted even as family and friends warned him not to get involved with extremists, Ridgway said. He quoted a friend as saying about Tounisi in a wiretap, "He will not die a martyr. He will die like road kill."
The prosecutor said Tounisi also is a flight risk, noting how he had managed to secure a U.S. passport on short notice and to scrape together money for a plane ticket.
"He's very resourceful," Ridgway told the judge.
But Tounisi's attorney, Molly Armour, said Tounisi came from a caring home and had no prior criminal record. She also said a terrorist-related charge shouldn't automatically deny release.
"The word `terrorism' is a word that tends to taint everything," she told the court.
She also gestured to the back of the courtroom, where dozens of members of his community sat, and she assured the judge they would also watch over Tounisi and see that he stays out of trouble.
"They are committed to being part of his life," she said. "That offers a backstop to the family."
Judge Martin said repeatedly that his decision to grant Tounisi release was a close call. He told Tounisi's father, Ahmad Tounisi, that a landline must be installed in the Aurora family home before his son could be released -- to comply with home confinement and electronic monitoring.
The judge told Tounisi's father that he will be obliged to contact authorities immediately if his son takes "one step out of the house." The elder Tounisi said he understood and would comply.
Tounisi would be released on a $50,000 unsecured bond, meaning neither he nor his family would be required to put the money down to secure his release. But if he fled, the court would order payment of the full $50,000.
Tounisi, a U.S. citizen, was snared in an Internet sting after contacting a sham website set up by the FBI that purported to connect would-be fighters with terrorists, federal prosecutors said.
He is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he faces a maximum 15-year prison term.
Daoud, Tounisi's friend, was arrested last year on charges he sought to detonate a device he thought was a bomb outside a downtown bar. Daoud has pleaded not guilty and is in jail awaiting trial.