An Ohio man whose brother was killed on the battlefields of Syria pleaded not guilty in federal court Friday to charges he wanted to follow in his footsteps to help the terrorist group al-Nusra Front and kill U.S. soldiers or police.
Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud's lawyer portrayed the Somali-born American citizen as a "normal 23-year-old kid" with no criminal record or violent tendencies, who knew more about basketball than bombs.
"This young man, 23 years of age, from Somalia, comes here, loses a brother in a war in Syria that had nothing to do with the United States," defense attorney Sam Shamansky said outside the federal courthouse where Mohamud was arraigned Friday morning.
"I can tell you that will be an issue in this case."
Mohamud, who grew up in the Columbus suburb of Whitehall, was locked up on state charges stemming from the FBI investigation weeks ago. A federal indictment, charging him with providing material support to a terrorist group, was unsealed on Thursday — making him the latest in a string of homegrown terror defendants.
According to the indictment, Mohamud enthusiastically followed his older brother, Abdifatah Aden, to Syria after researching which "extremist groups" were the best fighters.
After his brother was killed while fighting for the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra in June 2014, Mohamud returned to the U.S. boasting to a government informant that he had received training in weapons, explosives, breaking into homes and hand-to-hand combat, court papers say.
He said a Syrian cleric told him he should carry out an act of terrorism on American soil, the indictment alleges.
"Mohamud wanted to kill Americans, and specifically wanted to target armed forces, police officers, or any uniformed individuals. Mohamud's plan was to attack a military facility, and his backup plan was to attack a prison," prosecutors charged.
"Mohamud talked about doing something big in the United States. He wanted to go to a military base in Texas and kill three or four American soldiers execution style."
The indictment says that Aden's death was confirmed by a photo posted to his Facebook page showing him with a bandaged head. Mohamud has another brother, Abdiqani Aden, who was arrested last month for allegedly making a gun-like gesture toward a guard during a prison visit.
Shamansky said the indictment was "designed to scare people" and pointed to what it did not include: evidence of weapons possession, bomb-making materials or detailed plans for an attack.
"That's not in there for a reason, because none of that happened," he said.
He said Mohamud comes from a "lovely" family. His sister, who attended the arraignment and waved at him, is a student at Columbus State Community College.
"Typical tight-knit family who flees a civil war in their home country only to find themselves in extraordinary circumstances here," the lawyer said. "I’m sure you can imagine what it must be like as a parent to not only lose one kid but then to have another caught up in this circumstance."
He said he did not have any details about Aden's death and he declined to discuss why his client had gone to Syria or to what extent he may have been radicalized.
Terrorism experts have talked about the family ties that bind suspects in a string of cases.
“The importance of this is to underscore the way in which the personal and the political often intersect in these cases — and also the importance of the effect of an influential often older person or figure in pushing the radicalization along — extending what might otherwise be a lone-wolf narrative to a slightly larger circle," said Karen Greenberg of Fordham Law School's Center on National Security.
Ahmed Ahmed, director of the Masjid Ibn Tamiyah Islamic Center, told NBC News that Mohamud did not attend his mosque but had played against the center's basketball team.
"It's shocking," Ahmed said, describing the activities his center sponsors to keep young people away from the clutches of terrorist recruiters.
"Unfortunately," he said, "they get influenced by the Internet."
Laura Chapnick contributed to this report.