What should the U.S. government do with Basit Sheikh?
That was the question last week at the federal courthouse in downtown Raleigh, where Judge Terrence Boyle presided over a hearing about the fate of the 29-year-old Cary man and Pakistani citizen.
On Nov. 2, 2013, Sheikh was arrested on charges of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He had attempted to board a plane from RDU International Airport to go fight alongside the militia Jabat Al-Nusrah in the Syrian Civil War.
The Al-Nusrah Front is considered the most serious and committed fighting force in the Syrian resistance against President Bashar al-Assad. It is also considered the most radical—likely because many in the group are devout young Muslims. It was designated an al-Qada affiliate by the U.S. State Department on Dec. 11, 2012.
According to reports, prior to the incident Sheikh was a quiet man who lived with his parents in Cary and spent most of his time on the Internet. His prior criminal record consists of one speeding ticket.
Federal prosecutors say that Sheikh reached out to an FBI informant who maintained a Facebook page and began an online dialogue with an informant posing as a Syrian nurse. This source set up a Skype date with another informant to assist in the actual material planning of the trip to Syria. FBI agents arrested him as he was on his way to board his flight to Lebanon.
Federal prosecutor Jason Kellhofer said that the government is seeking the maximum sentence with a "terrorism enhancement": 15 years in prison.
Judge Boyle seemed impatient with the government prosecutor.
"If this guy had stayed off Facebook, would you even know he existed?" Judge Boyle said. "You put out the bait and attracted him."
"The intent is to see who it does attract," Kellhofer stammered.
The government is attempting to invoke a classified information provision to restrict the scope of declassified evidence the FBI has to provide.
Kellhofer made a plea for more time. Prosecutors want to comb through CIA and NSA intelligence to build their case.
Judge Boyle did not seem pleased. "You can make it as complicated as you want. I'm trying to simplify things. I know from experience that the desire to continue and extend is inexhaustible. Get a trial and get a plea in an expeditious and prompt manner," he said.
Sheikh was denied bail last week. He is scheduled to be arraigned in early March. The judge said he wants to see a trial in July.