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Federal trial begins for ex-DePaul student accused of writing computer code to help spread ISIS propaganda

Daesh (ISIS) (thierry ehrmann/Flickr)

Thomas Osadzinski was a DePaul University computer science student in June 2018 when he allegedly sent out a message in an online chat room seeking the recipe for a powerful explosive favored by terrorists and suicide bombers, according to federal prosecutors.

When someone in the chat room responded that he should be very careful, Osadzinski allegedly responded he “will be doing some studying.”

“You mean studying for school?” asked the person in the chat room, who unbeknownst to Osadzinski was a covert FBI agent.

Osadzinski allegedly replied, “For jihad,” followed by a heart emoji and a symbol associated with the Islamic State terrorist group.

That conversation three years ago will be a focal point for prosecutors as Osadzinski’s trial gets underway at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, where he faces charges of using the computer skills he was learning at DePaul to craft a first-of-its-kind code designed to spread violent terrorist propaganda online.

Osadzinski, 22, who is originally from Park Ridge and lived in an apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood at the time of his arrest, was charged with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, which carries up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

It’s the latest in a string of ISIS-related cases brought in U.S. District Court in Chicago that have continued well after the collapse of the group’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq nearly four years ago.

Most recently, two friends from far north suburban Zion were convicted by a federal jury in 2019 of attempting to aid the terrorist group by providing cellphones to an undercover FBI agent to be used as detonators for bombs. Joseph Jones was sentenced to 12 years in prison, while his co-defendant, Edward Schimenti, received 13½ years behind bars.

Jury selection in Osadzinski’s case took place Monday before U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman. Opening statements are expected Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, Osadzinski’s attorneys, Steve Greenberg and Joshua Herman, have described Osadzinski’s online activities as legal free speech and said that the government overreached in bringing criminal charges.

They have also fought to limit testimony about the Islamic State or any specific violence attributed to the group, arguing that Osadzinski was not accused of contributing directly to any violence and that the jury would be prejudiced by ISIS “overkill.”

“It appears that the vast majority of this trial will be an effort to demonstrate to the jurors just how bad and violent of an organization ISIS is, despite the fact that it will also not be contested,” Greenberg and Herman wrote in a court filing Monday.

In a court filing last year, Osadzinski’s attorneys described him as a serial exaggerator who “falsely boasted to make himself sound important in the eyes of others” and, “like a true millennial,” often posted these exaggerations on social media.

“He also developed different personae, even telling others online that he was from Chechnya, when in reality he was from Park Ridge, living in Lincoln Park, and going to college,” Osadzinski’s attorneys wrote. “He engaged people in many online messaging and video game forums, and might very well be considered an ‘Internet troll.’ ”

A recent convert to Islam, Osadzinski admittedly had a confused identity that he was “exploring on the fringes of the internet,” his lawyers said. But he spoke only rudimentary Arabic, confessed ignorance about basic concepts that came up in online chats, and was largely led on by comments made by the government’s confidential informants and agents, according to his attorneys.

The 38-page criminal complaint filed in 2019 alleged Osadzinski converted to Islam while a teen, expressing his devotion to the Islamic State in online forums that included undercover FBI employees he believed were terrorist sympathizers.

In his posts, Osadzinski said the AK-47 was his weapon of choice and that he was researching ideas on how to make homemade bombs and explosive belts, according to the complaint.

But he also said he was interested in getting married and raising a family before ever carrying out a martyrdom operation, the complaint alleged. For that reason, he chose to focus on media, calling it the “highest form of jihad,” according to the charges.

Beginning in 2019, Osadzinski started to design a process that uses a computer script to make ISIS propaganda more conveniently accessed and disseminated by users on social media, according to the complaint.

To short-circuit attempts by a particular social media platform to remove offensive content, Osadzinski’s computer process was designed to automatically copy and preserve ISIS media postings in an organized format, allowing users to continue to conveniently access and disseminate the content, the charges alleged.

“It can run on any computer and will be very lightweight, fast and secure,” Osadzinski allegedly wrote to one undercover federal employee.

Osadzinski eventually shared his script and instructions for how to use it with individuals whom he believed to be ISIS supporters and members of pro-ISIS media organizations, the complaint said.

He also shared a screen capture of his computer showing files containing more than 700 gigabytes of ISIS material, including magazines, speeches and videos, the charges alleged.

According to the complaint, the FBI had been monitoring Osadzinski’s online activities for nearly two years. He was aware he was being watched because an agent attempted to interview him in March 2018, according to the complaint.

Osadzinski was arrested the day the complaint was unsealed and has been held without bond pending trial.


© 2021 Chicago Tribune

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