Minnesota man who regrets joining Islamic State group faces sentencing on terrorism charge

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

Federal prosecutors sentenced Abelhamid Al-Madioum to 12 years in recognition of the severity of his crime and the assistance he provided to the US and other governments. His lawyer says seven years is enough and that 27-year-old Al-Madioum stopped believing in the group’s extremist ideology years ago.

Al-Madioum was 18 years old when IS recruited him in 2014. The student escaped his family while visiting their native Morocco in 2015. On 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 US-backed rebels in 2019 and was imprisoned under harsh conditions.

Al-Madioum returned to the US in 2020 and pleaded guilty in 2021 to providing material support to a designated terrorist organization. According to court documents, he has cooperated with U.S. authorities and related governments. The defense says he hopes to contribute to future counter-terrorism and deradicalization efforts.

β€œThe person who left was young, ignorant and deluded,” Al-Madioum said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery, who will sentence him.

β€œI have been changed by life experience: by the betrayal I endured as a member of ISIS, by becoming a father of four children, a husband, an amputee, a prisoner of war, a malnourished supplicant, by seeing the pain and fear and the gnashing of teeth that terrorism causes, the humiliation, the tears, the shame,” he added. β€œI joined a death cult and that was the biggest mistake of my life.”

Prosecutors acknowledge that Al-Madioum provided useful assistance to the US. authorities in various national security investigations and prosecutions, that he accepted responsibility for his crime and immediately pleaded guilty upon his return to the US. But they say they included his cooperation in their recommended sentence of 12 years instead of the statutory maximum of 20 years.

β€œThe defendant did far more than harbor extremist beliefs,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo. β€œHe chose violent action by taking up arms for ISIS.”

Al-Madioum, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was among a number of Minnesotans suspected of leaving the U.S. to join Islamic State, along with thousands of fighters from other countries around the world. About three dozen people are known to have left Minnesota to join militant groups in Somalia or Syria. In 2016, nine Minnesota men were convicted on federal charges of conspiring to join ISIS.

But Al-Madioum is one of relatively few Americans brought back to the U.S. and actually fighting for the group. He is one of 11 adults formally repatriated to the U.S. from the conflict in Syria and Iraq starting in 2023, where they will face charges for terrorist crimes and alleged ties to ISIS, according to a defense sentencing memo. 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 non-religious family, the defense said. He joined IS because he wanted to help Muslims who he believed were being massacred by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime during Syrian President Bashar Assad’s civil war. IS recruiters persuaded him to ‘test his faith and become a real Muslim’.

But he had been a fighter for less than two months before he lost his right arm below the elbow in the explosion, which also left him with two seriously broken legs and other serious injuries. He may still need amputation of one leg, the defense says.

During his recovery in 2016, he met his first wife Fatima, an IS widow who already had a son and gave birth to another son in 2017. They lived in poverty and under constant air raids. He was unable to work and his IS benefits stopped in 2018. They lived in a makeshift tent, the defense says.

He married his second wife, Fozia, in 2018. She was also an IS widow and already had a four-year-old daughter. They had broken up in early 2019. He later learned that she and their daughter had died together. The first woman is also dead after being shot in front of Al-Madioum by rebels or an IS fighter in 2019, the defense says.

The day after the shooting, he walked with his sons and surrendered to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who held him for 18 months in conditions described by the defense as “horrific” until the FBI returned him to The United States.

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