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Jury convicts ex-student of attempting to aid ISIS terrorist group with propaganda program

Court room and gavel. (Dreamstime/TNS)

A federal jury on Monday found an ex-DePaul University student guilty of using his developing computer skills to help the Islamic State terrorist group spread violent propaganda on social media.

The jury deliberated about four hours beginning Friday before finding Thomas Osadzinski, 22, guilty of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors alleged Osadzinski, who had pledged fealty to ISIS, used skills he was learning in college to create a first-of-its-kind program aimed at helping the terrorist organization spread its violent messages online.

Osadzinski’s attorneys, however, painted him as a naive teenager “lost in the abyss of the internet” whose online activities were protected by the First Amendment.

The defense team said Monday they were “very disappointed” with the verdict, which came shortly after the jury had sent a note asking for the definition of “concerted.”

“We look forward to future litigation before the trial court,” attorney Steve Greenberg said. “We think this case was simply an attempt by the government to censor an unfavorable opinion.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman did not set a sentencing date, saying he wanted to rule first on what are expected to be extensive post-trial motions.

The two-week trial was 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.

In 2019, two friends from far north suburban Zion were convicted by a federal jury 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.

Osadzinski’s case was unique because it centered on a fairly rudimentary computer code he wrote, rather than the planning of any actual attack or attempt to send equipment overseas.

While Osadzinski’s lawyers downplayed his sophistication, prosecutors said his statements both online and in undercover recordings showed he was excited to have created a new and potentially powerful tool for ISIS, which relies heavily on social media to spread propaganda.

In her closing argument Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melody Wells said Osadzinski’s computer program could rapidly download, replicate and spread violent ISIS videos faster than social media platforms could delete them, significantly improving the terrorist organization’s messaging capabilities.

“He came up with something valuable, and he knew it,” Wells said. “He was doing something that mattered.”

In one 2019 conversation highlighted by prosecutors, Osadzinski told someone he thought was an ISIS propaganda chief that he was “the only person in the world doing this right now.”

When asked what he planned to do with the script he’d written, Osadzinski allegedly replied, “Spread it everywhere … now I’m making as much jihad as possible.”

But Osadzinski’s attorneys painted him as desperately naive, peppering his online chats with emojis, using stencils and fabric to make his own ISIS flag, even printing out jihad posters at the campus library.

A recent convert to Islam, Osadzinski spoke only rudimentary Arabic and fell victim to overzealous agents who pretended to be ISIS sympathizers, befriended him, and gave him a mission that in the end went nowhere, according to attorney Joshua Herman.

Herman also called attention in his closing argument to FBI reports where undercover operatives described Osadzinski as an ISIS “fan boy” — a term Herman said was akin to “someone writing letters to Justin Bieber.”

“All this talk about things he wants to do for ISIS,” Herman said in a mocking tone. “It’s like he’s the Elon Musk of the Caliphate.”

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 is being held without bond.


© 2021 Chicago Tribune

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