- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - A Virginia taxi driver pleaded guilty Monday to charges that he tried to help a friend join the Islamic State group.

Mahmoud A.M. Elhassan of Woodbridge was arrested in January, as was his friend, Joseph Farrokh, following a government sting. The two had been in regular contact with a government informant who they believed could help them travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said.

At a plea hearing Monday in federal court in Alexandria, Elhassan admitted driving Farrokh in January to the Richmond airport, where they believed they would face less scrutiny from security and where Farrokh planned to start a trip to Syria. Elhassan also admitted that he lied to federal agents who interviewed him about the true nature of Farrokh’s trip.

Prosecutors said Monday that they believe Elhassan also planned to travel to join the Islamic State at a later date. Elhassan’s attorney, Thomas Durkin, disputed the assertion that Elhassan ever had any serious intention of joining the group.

Farrokh has already been sentenced to 8 ½ years in prison, and renounced his support of the Islamic State.

Similarly, Durkin said Elhassan’s support of the Islamic State was an aberration brought on by significant personal problems, including the recent death of his mother, that left him more receptive to a message of religious zealotry.

Elhassan struck no plea bargain in making his guilty pleas at Monday’s hearing. He pleaded guilty to a count of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group and a count of making false statements. But a terror conspiracy count remains unresolved and set for trial in January.

Durkin said after the hearing that he is surprised the Justice Department still seems set on bringing the final count to trial, given that a conviction would be unlikely to result in a substantially different sentence. But he said he is prepared to go to trial if necessary.

Elhassan and Farrokh are among a half-dozen northern Virginia men charged this year with trying to help the Islamic State. Most of the cases have developed out of government stings.

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