American who helped Islamic State asks for leniency

NEW YORK (AP) — An American woman who admitted to participating in the online recruitment of Islamic State fighters is seeking leniency in her terrorism case over the objections of prosecutors who say she double-crossed them.

Defense attorneys for Sinmyah Amera Caesar, who once used the nom de guerre “Umm Nutella,” argued at a sentencing hearing Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn that she’s a lost soul worthy of redemption. They want her sentenced to time served — about two years — and a lifetime of supervision that would include participating in a rehab program.

Prosecutors, burned by Caesar’s efforts to secretly get back in touch with her Islamic State contacts after signing up as a cooperater, told U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein that she’s still a terror threat who deserves a severe punishment of at least 30 years behind bars.

Caesar, 24, “was a committed recruiter and self-described ‘assistant’ to the terrorist group, connecting ISIS supporters in the United States to ISIS facilitators and operatives abroad,” the government wrote in court papers.

At the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Josh Hafetz said the defendant’s interactions involved “two confirmed ISIS operatives” in the Middle East who were ultimately killed in air strikes.

Defense attorney Deirdre Von Dornum insisted the communications were a misguided attempt to find comfort from a community of fellow Muslims.

“Yes, she messed up,” Von Dornum said about her client’s violation of her cooperation agreement. “We just need to give her a lot more help this time.”

Weinstein adjourned the hearing until Wednesday, when he’s expected to hear further arguments and from Caesar before deciding her sentence.

“The question for the court is whether you can be trusted,” Weinstein said.

Little was known about Caesar before the hearing because her case was largely kept under seal to protect her from retaliation while she offered the government assistance in identifying threats from the Islamic State.

Defense attorneys describe the New Jersey-born defendant as a high school dropout whose father sexually abused her and still suffers from severe trauma. She was living in Brooklyn in 2016 when she became radicalized by extremist propaganda and began interacting with other IS sympathizers as “Umm Nutella,” an apparent nod to social media posts purporting to show IS fighters enjoying the popular hazelnut cocoa spread.

She soon began advocating violent jihad Facebook posts, prosecutors said, including one written in Arabic from February 2016 that read, “Let’s go . . . let’s go like the soldiers.”

Using encrypted messages, she also corresponded with IS sympathizers, providing them contact information for recruiters who could help them travel overseas or direct them about how to conduct attacks on U.S. soil, prosecutors said.

After Caesar was intercepted while trying to leave the country at Kennedy Airport, she pleaded guilty to providing material support to the Islamic Group and offered information to the FBI about her IS contacts. In 2018, she was released on bail while awaiting sentencing.

While out, Caesar started reaching out to former associates, an effort that included “multiple attempts to contact at least one individual against whom the defendant proactively cooperated,” court papers say. She also deleted about 1,000 Facebook messages in an effort to cover her tracks, the papers say.

Caesar, who’s now back in jail, “has shown no contrition, taken no responsibility for her conduct and failed to separate herself from the extremist world she reveled in before her 2016 arrest,” court papers say.

The papers cite a 2018 message reading, “I didn’t do anything wrong under Islam. . I got arrested for what I believe in.”

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