Judge keeps Aurora man accused of trying to join al-Qaida in jail

By Ramsen Shamon

Photo of Abdella Ahmad Tounisi provided by his family
A federal judge ruled Thursday that Abdella Ahmad Tounisi should remain in jail until his trial on terrorism charges. Photo provided by his family.

A federal judge decided Thursday to keep an Aurora man in custody on charges he intended to join and provide material support to an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

Sporting a shaved-head and shackled at the feet, Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 20, did not react after U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan’s ruling. Tounisi has been in custody since April 2013 when he tried to board a flight to Turkey at O’Hare International Airport. According to the FBI, Tounisi was set on joining Jabhat al-Nusrah, a group associated with al-Qaida. Tounisi revealed his intentions in email exchanges with FBI agents, who posed as jihadist recruiters on a fake website.

Tounisi’s attorney Molly Armour argued her client should be released on bond because he has shown good behavior and maturity while in custody at Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center. When arrested, he was a student at the College of DuPage and was planning to become a radiologist. “Development happens over time,” she told the judge.

However, Asst. U.S. Attorney William Ridgway countered that was irrelevant. “I don’t see how maturity plays into this. He was mature when he was arrested,” he said. Tounisi was “interested in martyrdom,” Ridgway told the judge.

Armour also introduced the idea of having a third-party custodian for Tounisi if he was released. The custodian would have been responsible for keeping track of Tounisi’s movements and activities.

Der-Yeghiayan was not persuaded by Armour’s argument and ruled that Tounisi should remain in custody. “I’m not saying he’s guilty,” the judge said.

In May of 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Martin ruled to the surprise of many that Tounisi could be released to home confinement. A day later, U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang overturned that ruling, saying that Tounisi was a threat to society and the world.

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Even though he has not been convicted of anything, Tounisi has been in custody for more than a year.

“We had to try,” Armour said to a small gathering of Tounisi’s supporters after the hearing.

Tounisi’s father, Ahmad Tounisi, consoled his wife, Seham, who was crying. In Arabic, he told her to repeat the phrase, “There is no God but Allah.”

Tounisi could face 23 years in prison if found guilty.