Minnesota Man Who Regrets Joining Islamic State Group Faces Sentencing on Terrorism Charge

Gavel and American flag with scales of justice.
(U.S. Army photo)

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota man who once fought for the Islamic State group in Syria but now expresses remorse for joining a “death cult” and has been cooperating with federal authorities will learn Wednesday how much prison time he faces.

Federal prosecutors have recommended 12 years for Abelhamid Al-Madioum in recognition both of the seriousness of his crime and the help has he given the U.S. and other governments. His attorney says seven years is enough and that Al-Madioum, 27, stopped believing in the group's extremist ideology years ago.

Al-Madioum was 18 in 2014 when IS recruited him. The college student slipped away from his family on a visit to their native Morocco in 2015. Making his way to Syria, he became a soldier for IS, also known as ISIS, until he was maimed in an explosion in Iraq. Unable to fight, he used his computer skills to serve the group. He surrendered to U.S.-backed rebels in 2019 and was imprisoned under harsh conditions.

Al-Madioum returned to the U.S. in 2020 and pleaded guilty in 2021 to providing material support to a designated terrorist organization. According to court filings, he has been cooperating with U.S. authorities and allied governments. The defense says he hopes to work in future counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts.

“The person who left was young, ignorant, and misguided," Al-Madioum said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery, who will sentence him.

“I’ve been changed by life experience: by the treachery I endured as a member of ISIS, by becoming a father of four, a husband, an amputee, a prisoner of war, a malnourished supplicant, by seeing the pain and anguish and gnashing of teeth that terrorism causes, the humiliation, the tears, the shame,” he added. "I joined a death cult, and it was the biggest mistake of my life.”

Prosecutors acknowledge that Al-Madioum has provided useful assistance to U..S. authorities in several national security investigations and prosecutions, that he accepted responsibility for his crime and pleaded guilty promptly on his return to the U.S. But they say they factored his cooperation into their recommended sentence of 12 years instead of the statutory maximum of 20 years.

“The defendant did much more than harbor extremist beliefs,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo. “He chose violent action by taking up arms for ISIS.”

A naturalized U.S. citizen, Al-Madioum was among several Minnesotans suspected of leaving the U.S. to join the Islamic State group, along with thousands of fighters from other countries worldwide. Roughly three dozen people are known to have left Minnesota to join militant groups in Somalia or Syria. In 2016, nine Minnesota men were sentenced on federal charges of conspiring to join IS.

But Al-Madioum is one of the relatively few Americans who've been brought back to the U.S. who actually fought for the group. According to a defense sentencing memo, he's one of 11 adults as of 2023 to be formally repatriated to the U.S. from the conflict in Syria and Iraq to face charges for terrorist-related crimes and alleged affiliations with IS. Others received sentences ranging from four years to life plus 70 years.

Al-Madioum grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park in a loving and nonreligious family, the defense memo said. He joined IS because he wanted to help Muslims who he believed were being slaughtered by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in that country's civil war. IS recruiters persuaded him “to test his faith and become a real Muslim.”

But he was a fighter for less than two months before he lost his right arm below the elbow in the explosion that also left him with two badly broken legs and other severe injuries. He may still require amputation of one leg, the defense says.

While recuperating in 2016, he met his first wife Fatima, an IS widow who already had a son and bore him another in 2017. They lived in poverty and under constant airstrikes. He was unable to work, and his stipend from IS stopped in 2018. They lived in a makeshift tent, the defense says.

He married his second wife, Fozia, in 2018. She also was an IS widow and already had a 4-year-old daughter. They had separated by early 2019. He heard later she and their daughter together had died. The first wife also is dead, having been shot in front of Al-Madioum by either rebel forces or an IS fighter in 2019, the defense says.

The day after that shooting, he walked with his sons and surrendered to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which held him under conditions the defense described as “heinous” for 18 months until the FBI returned him to the U.S.

As for Al-Madioum’s children, the defense memo said they were eventually found in a Syrian orphanage and his parents will be their foster parents when they arrive in the U.S.

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