Va. man caught in sting trying to join ISIS gets 8.5 years

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) -- As a kid, he went by the name "Jersey Joe," identifying more with mob movies and culture than his father's Iranian heritage. As a young adult, he abused drugs but still was not particularly religious.

Then came a sudden and steep radicalization that led "Jersey Joe" Farrokh to try to join the Islamic State as a soldier in Syria. On Friday, Farrokh, 29, of Woodbridge, was sentenced to 8 ½ years in prison for attempting to support a terrorist group.

Farrokh was arrested in January at the Richmond airport, where he intended to begin a trip to Jordan and eventually Syria. He bought his tickets out of Richmond because he believed his travel plans would face less scrutiny at a smaller airport.

He had discussed his plans with people he thought were Islamic State facilitators but who were actually informants on a government sting operation.

Farrokh is one of six men from northern Virginia in 2016 alone who have been arrested on terror-related charges, most in sting operations.

Farrokh's lawyer submitted hundreds of pages records trying to explain how his client arrived at the place where he thought joining a group like the Islamic State was a good idea.

Joseph Flood said Farrokh's flirtation with the Islamic State was as brief as it was sudden, calling it "religious zealotry gone awry."

"He renounced the affiliation and quickly came to his senses," Flood said Friday.

Farrokh, who married last year and is expecting a newborn son by the end of the month, apologized for his conduct.

"I became susceptible to a message ... that fit my desire to have a purpose," he said. "I am very sorry for what I have done. In no way do I want to be associated with ISIS or its sick ideology."

In a psychiatric report submitted on Farrokh's behalf, family members reported Farrokh was a happy kid growing up near Allentown, Pennsylvania, until a job change required the family to move to Richmond, California. The upheaval left Farrokh angry and isolated, family members said.

The family is described in the report as nominally religious. Farrokh's father is a Muslim of Iranian descent. His mother was Christian. Farrokh himself never really identified as a Muslim -- he sometimes wore a necklace with a cross, and friends assumed he was a lapsed Catholic, in keeping with his "Jersey Joe" image, according to the report.

The conversion to radical Islam came quickly in the latter half of 2015, as he befriended another man, Mahmoud Elhassan, who was also charged with trying to join the Islamic State and is awaiting trial. Family members said Farrokh would fight with his father over religious issues, including the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam, and started adopted practices like refusing to use his left hand to eat and using a special stick called a miswak to clean his teeth, a practice sometimes associated with diligently observant Muslims.

Farrokh, in a letter to the judge, describes himself as converting to Islam in 2013, and radicalizing in late 2015, when he met Elhassan and began watching Islamic State propaganda online.

"The ISIS propaganda videos showed a sense of community and brotherhood, something which I always craved," Farrokh wrote. I needed that sense of belonging."

The 8 ½-year sentence fell in between the five years sought by the defense and the sentence of at least 16 years sought by prosecutors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick did not dispute that Farrokh seems genuine in his contrition and that he has cooperated with the investigation. But he said the sentence needs to serve as a deterrent, especially in the northern Virginia area and the region around the nation's capital.

"This is a highly populated, target-rich environment around here," he told U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga. "Your sentence will be most felt in this community, in northern Virginia and the D.C. area."

Flood said that while his client did indeed envision serving as a soldier for the Islamic State, he explicitly rejected the idea of participating in any kind of a domestic terrorist attack, even while he was in the depths of his radicalization.