On Jan. 15, Mahmoud Elhassan headed out in his taxi from Northern Virginia to pick up a friend in Richmond who was preparing to travel overseas. They pulled over at a rest stop, where the friend, Joseph Farrokh, shaved off his beard. Then, with hours left before Farrokh’s flight, they went to a mall to pass the time.
Finally, Elhassan called another cab to take Farrokh to the Richmond airport. Elhassan began driving back north.
The shave and the second taxi were intended to help the pair avoid detection as Farrokh set out on his way to Syria to join the Islamic State. It was no use; the FBI had been watching the whole time, and an undercover informant was in on the plan. Farrokh was arrested as he walked toward his gate, Elhassan in the food court of Potomac Mills mall.
Elhassan, 26, pleaded guilty Monday morning to attempting to help a terrorist group and giving false statements to the FBI. He admitted that he introduced Farrokh to the informant at Farrokh’s wedding last fall and spoke numerous times about ways to get to Syria. He also lied to investigators, claiming that his friend had flown out of Dulles International Airport to attend a funeral in California.
He may yet go to trial on a charge of conspiracy to provide material support. He says that he himself never tried to go abroad.
“There’s an issue of whether this is more than an attempt” to help the Islamic State, said Thomas Durkin, Elhassan’s attorney.
A trial would be “meaningless,” Durkin said, because it probably would have little effect on Elhassan’s sentence. He said he hopes prosecutors will agree to drop the conspiracy charge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick said in court that Elhassan and Farrokh, both of Woodbridge, engaged in conversations that were “violent in nature,” discussing “chopping off heads” and “fighting against the U.S. military.”
Durkin said there are personal details that put Elhassan’s actions in context.
“Preceding all this, he was under tremendous emotional and family problems,” Durkin said. “His mother had died at a young age, which was traumatic for him and his family.”
Elhassan’s father died in 2008, which is when most of his family came from Sudan to the United States. His mother became sick in 2014 and died of cancer in September 2015.
Durkin called Elhassan “a very, very thoughtful and intelligent kid,” who, as a refugee in Cairo, studied at Al-Azhar University, the oldest in Egypt. In the United States, before his arrest, he was a student at Northern Virginia Community College.
Elhassan had initially pleaded not guilty, with his attorney Ashraf Nubani arguing that the case was manufactured by undercover informants. Nubani identified the key informant as Jesse Morton, a former Islamist extremist who was let out of prison more than seven years early.
Farrokh, 29, pleaded guilty earlier this year and was sentenced to 8½ years in prison. Raised by a Shiite Muslim father and a Christian mother, he turned to Islam in his 20s after battling an opioid addiction. Court documents show that he latched onto an extreme religiosity and became fixated on the idea of dying as a martyr on the battlefield in Syria. After his arrest, he expressed bafflement and disgust at his actions.
The two are among seven young men from Northern Virginia accused of ties to the Islamic State this year. Along with Farrokh and Elhassan, Haris Qamar has pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges. Four other cases are pending.