BAY SHORE, New York (AP) — A young New York man caught boarding a plane on his way to Yemen to fight with an al-Qaida affiliate is a teenager who was diagnosed with autism and didn’t understand the gravity of what he was doing, his attorney told The Associated Press.
Justin Kaliebe, 18, pleaded guilty in a secret federal court proceeding in February to a charge of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before he is sentenced Sept. 27. His condition could be considered in determining his sentence. He faces up to 30 years in prison.
“Justin Kaliebe is a gentle, misguided, autistic teenager who does not have the ability to fully understand the magnitude and consequences of his actions,” defense attorney Anthony La Pinta said in a statement to the AP.
La Pinta, who joined the defense team after the guilty plea was entered, said he has medical documents showing that Kaliebe was diagnosed with autism as a young child, but he would not release them.
Authorities have declined to say why the plea was entered in secret, though the move could mean Kaliebe was cooperating in the investigation when it was at a sensitive stage.
Kaliebe, who converted to Islam about three years ago, apparently was swept up in the New York Police Department’s ongoing investigation into the activities of Muslims throughout the region. Counterterrorism agents and NYPD officers intercepted him Jan. 21 as he tried to board a flight to Oman on his way to Yemen.
Acquaintances, including the imam at a Long Island mosque he frequently attended, have described him as emotionally immature and a child of divorce who seemed in need of psychiatric counseling.
According to court papers, Kaliebe told an undercover operative pretending to be a confidant, “There is no way out for me. … The only way out is martyrdom.”
The NYPD has long had an interest in converts to Islam as part of its efforts to prevent terrorist attacks, saying in a 2007 report that they are “particularly vulnerable” to radicalization.
Prosecutors allege Kaliebe began plotting to join al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula in 2011 while he was in contact with an undercover operative, who recorded their conversations.
“Kaliebe indicated that he wanted to join a group ‘for the sake of Allah,’” documents show.
A 20-year-old friend, Ahmad Deib, said he doesn’t believe Kaliebe was capable of terrorism.
“This is a case of entrapment. This kid, he couldn’t hurt a fly. He is one of the most kindhearted kids you would ever know.”
Friends said Kaliebe’s home life was not ideal. His parents were divorced in 1998 when he was a toddler, said Bilal Hito.
“There was something about Justin that made you feel you were around a little boy,” Hito said.
Deib said Kaliebe once confided that he had stopped taking antidepressants because he didn’t like the way they made him feel.
Imam Abdul Jabbar said in an interview that Kaliebe even asked if he could live in the mosque.
La Pinta disputed reports that his client had a lousy home life.
Goldman reported from Washington.