SAN FRANCISCO — Last week, a federal judge ruled that the Department of Justice had failed to prove something it insisted for years was true: that a Fremont man tried to travel to Syria in 2015, to join a terrorist organization.

U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick ruled that while 25-year-old Adam Shafi used a fraudulent $2,200 check to travel to the Middle East, he hadn’t done so with the intent to assist a Syrian terrorist group known as Al Nusra Front. The judge’s ruling ends a nearly four-year saga that included widespread media coverage, a mistrial and wildly different theories from both sides.

Prosecutors accused Shafi of terrorism in 2015, and he became the subject of a New York Times piece on American parents whose children join terror groups. But in 2018, a jury deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquitting Shafi of aligning himself with terrorists.

After the mistrial, prosecutors took a different tack with Shafi’s case, indicting him on a fraud charge. In December he accepted a plea agreement and admitted to using a fraudulent check, but did not admit to having terrorist ties.

Shafi faced up to 14 years in prison. Prosecutors asked Orrick for 10 years, and to impose a terrorism enhancement that could extend his sentence. Instead, Orrick sided with the defense, sentencing Shafi to credit for time served for the three and a half years he spent in jail awaiting trial.

Shafi was also sentenced to five years federal probation, and six months of house arrest. In a letter to the court, Shafi said he is trying to move on with his life.

“The years that passed since my arrest have been very long and have allowed me to grow and deal with my life more maturely,” he wrote, later adding. “I have no interest in terrorism or any of its affiliates who wreak havoc wherever they go. What I said and did when I was 21 is foolish, brash immaturity and bears no merit on who I am today.”

During trial, the federal public defender’s office, argued that the FBI had misinterpreted disturbing statements Shafi made as an intent to become a terrorist, describing him instead as a depressed young man who’d gotten a badly needed wakeup call.

“Mr. Shafi’s arrest on July 3, 2015 was both the worst and best thing that has ever happened to him,” assistant federal public defender Hanni Fakhoury wrote in a defense sentencing memo. He added that being arrested, “helped Mr. Shafi realize his privilege was a blessing, not a burden, and brought into focus the mental health problems Mr. Shafi failed to address for too long.”

His arrest and mistrial

Shafi was arrested on July 3, 2015, a month after he attempted to travel from the Bay Area to Turkey. Prosecutors said his ultimate goal was to join Al Nusra Front in Syria. During the investigation, Shafi’s phones were wiretapped, and he made several statements signaling violent intent.

“I just hope Allah doesn’t take my soul until I have at least, like, a couple of gallons of blood that I have spilled for him, at least something like that. I just really hope so, man. How can I meet Allah when my face has no scars on it?” he said in one conversation, according to prosecutors.

In another conversation, a week before his travels, he reportedly said, “I really wanted to kill some, like, fricking people that were, uh, like supporting America or-or American soldiers or something.”

In his letter, Shafi wrote he “never intended the menacing things I said, especially regarding our soldiers.”

The defense said those statements were the result of not violent intent, but Shafi’s inner conflict as he attempted to find himself. They wrote in a sentencing memo that after being diagnosed with depression as a young man, Shafi turned to traditional Islam, and traveled to Egypt with his family in 2013. The trip left him feeling, “guilty and resentful for the privileges he enjoyed while other Muslims in the Middle East suffered.”

The Syrian Civil War caused Shafi to feel even more “enormous pain and grief,” which eventually turned to nihilism and suicidal thoughts, defense attorneys wrote. He talked about wanting to travel to Death Valley to spend time sleeping in the desert, and that his family treated him like a “slave.” His family noticed a change in him, but didn’t know what was wrong.

Then, in late June 2015, Shafi purchased a one-way plane ticket to Turkey. He wasn’t allowed to board the flight from San Francisco International Airport, and the FBI interrogated him soon after. Days later, he was charged with attempting to provide himself to Al Nusra Front.

“He had no plan at all as to what he would do when he got there,” defense attorneys wrote.

Prosecutors, argued Shafi’s intent was clearly to join with the terrorist group, and that he’d also researched ISIS and illegal border crossings.

“It shows that the defendant’s interest in joining a terrorist organization continued and led to his travel in June 2015,” prosecutors wrote. “There is no reason to believe that he does not still harbor those sympathies and, as a result, remains a danger to the community both domestically and abroad.”

Since being freed two months after his mistrial, Shafi wrote he is taking software courses and gaining proficiency in web development with the hopes of getting a job.

“I know it will be difficult because of my charge and the publicity surrounding it, but I have the unwavering support of my family and community, which I am confident will enable me to overcome any hurdles and start anew with a bright future,” he wrote.

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(c)2019 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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