A 22-year-old Orange County man was sentenced today to 15 years in federal prison for attempting to help Islamic State terrorists in Syria.
Adam Dandach, who pleaded guilty last August, had faced up to 25 years in federal prison. Assistant U.S. Attorney Celeste Collett argued for a 20-year term.
U.S. District Judge James Selna said he took into account that Dandach was abused, including sexually, as a child growing up in La Habra. Dandach’s attorneys said his father, who was eventually deported to Lebanon, abused his son.
Dandach issued a lengthy, at times rambling, statement expressing some regret at his actions while also recounting how he has felt like a “prisoner” for most of his life so far.
“My entire body became shackled,” Dandach said, referring to the child abuse, “sleep deprivation” and binge eating that left him obese.
His attorneys say he weighed 500 pounds at one point in high school until he underwent gastric bypass surgery and began working out in college.
“I thought death would be better than this,” Dandach said of his depression.
He said he began to feel “unshackled” when he was 19, but slipped into believing in a “seeming Utopia of the Islamic State.” Dandach said, “I never should have been freed in the first place.”
When he was arrested, Dandach said he “felt nothing, no depression, no sorrow, no grief.” Now he feels as if his “emotions are at war” with each other.
“Often I prefer death takes me, and often I prefer death never comes,” Dandach said. “I am not a sob story,” he added. “I don’t seek pity or sympathy. I only seek empathy.”
As for his crimes, “pardon me for my poor judgment and know-it-all attitude,” Dandach said.
Selna said Dandach’s “conduct here is serious. At the same time, I took into consideration his abuse as a child and his mental health condition.”
Two experts who testified about Dandach’s mental health offered “contrasting views” of the defendant, the judge noted.
At an April 21 evidentiary hearing, an FBI agent testified that Dandach, of Orange, had planned to use a charity as a cover to gain easier access into Syria.
Federal prosecutors requested the evidentiary hearing to show Selna how much planning and sophistication went into Dandach’s efforts to aid Islamic State terrorists in the civil war-torn country.
Defense attorney Pal Lengyel-Leahu tried to make the case that Dandach’s attempts were fumbling at best and included a desire to help refugees.
Dandach’s attorneys also say he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and has been committed twice for mental health issues.
FBI Special Agent Scott Wales previously testified that Dandach used social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to keep abreast of news on the Syrian struggle via reports from Islamic State insiders. He also used an application to solicit advice from apparent associates of Islamic State and participated in discussions in an online forum, Wales said.
According to Wales, Dandach asked one Canadian citizen who had gone to Syria to join the fight to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “How did you do it?”
Within a day of that conversation, Dandach had bought a laptop and applied for a passport to replace the one his mother threw away in late 2013 when she feared he would go to Syria, Wales testified.
When investigators searched digital devices belonging to Dandach, including the laptop and his smart phone, they found he had amassed information on how to travel to Syria, including the advice to join a charity “to provide cover so travelers would receive less scrutiny,” Wales testified.
The way in was through Turkey, where he would look for Islamic State sympathizers, according to Wales. He said Dandach had pamphlets that included photos of dead, smiling “martyrs” who, according to the propagandists, had begun to see “paradise.”
Video of Dandach’s interrogation after he was detained in July 2014 at John Wayne Airport, where his passport was confiscated, showed the defendant calmly explaining how the beheading of prisoners of war was OK under Sharia Law and how he figured he would receive weapons training when he got to Syria.
Dandach was subsequently heard in a recorded phone call from the Santa Ana jail telling family members to destroy evidence on his digital devices because it could incriminate him and others.
Dandach at one point wrote in one of his online conversations, “I wish to fight one day,” Wales testified. He said Dandach also wrote a letter to an Orange County Register reporter in January 2015, after the deadly terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo journal’s offices in Paris, and included a poem with a line declaring, “je suis Al Qaeda” or “I’m Al Qaeda.”
Dandach had a ticket to Atlanta when he was detained at the Santa Ana airport. He had planned to catch an international flight to Istanbul. Dandach’s lawyer said his client was attempting to get insider information about the situation in Syria by following various sources on Facebook and Twitter, not necessarily because he agreed with those individuals’ opinions on the war.
When Dandach was detained at the airport, Lengyel-Leahu said, the defendant “had no plan, no route (into Syria), no forms of communication” on him, nor was he carrying any money. Lengyel-Leahu also attacked Wales’ testimony that Dandach planned to pledge allegiance to Islamic State when he got to Syria.