CHICAGO -- In a highly unusual decision, a federal judge Thursday ordered a terrorism suspect released to home confinement while the Aurora teen awaits trial on charges that he signed up to fight in war-torn Syria for a terror group with ties to al-Qaida.
But the U.S. attorney's office quickly moved to appeal the decision, putting a hold on the release of Abdella Ahmad Tounisi. Another judge will reconsider Tounisi's bail Friday morning.
Federal prosecutors called Tounisi, 18, a flight risk and a danger to the community in asking that he remain in custody on charges that he provided material support to a terrorist organization. Tounisi has been in custody since his arrest April 19 at O'Hare International Airport.
Prosecutors allege that Tounisi posted messages on a phony website set up by the FBI agreeing to travel to Syria to fight with the Al-Nusra Front militant group. According to authorities, Tounisi has links to a second Chicago-area terrorism suspect, Adel Daoud, who was arrested in September after he tried to set off what he thought was a bomb outside a downtown bar. The two were close friends and plotted the bomb attack together, prosecutors allege, but Tounisi backed out when he suspected law enforcement was on to them.
In ordering Tounisi's release, U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Martin repeatedly called the decision a "close, close" call but said that pretrial detention is intended to be an "exceptional step." Martin also said he was convinced in part by a courtroom packed with family members and leaders from Tounisi's religious community. The judge also cited Tounisi's lack of criminal background.
Martin's voice shifted to a stern tone as he directly addressed Tounisi, warning him not to break any of the rules he had set for his release. Martin acknowledged the rare opportunity he was giving him, noting the seriousness of the charges and the allegations that Tounisi intended to harm people here and abroad.
"This is no game, Mr. Tounisi," Martin said at one point. "The world is a very volatile place. ... Right now you are hanging by a thread in this courtroom."
Martin named Tounisi's father to act as custodian to ensure his son followed the court's orders.
Tounisi maintained a serious, slightly worried look during the hearing. He spoke little -- only to acknowledge that he understood what was happening.
Tounisi's attorney, Molly Armour, denied he posed either a flight risk or danger and noted that he had never before been arrested.
"The word 'terrorism' is a word that tends to taint everything it touches," she said. "But it is the American system that requires us to look at the individual."
Armour said Tounisi, a U.S. citizen, has a close, loving relationship with his family. She said they do not have the financial resources to help him flee Chicago and that he had already tendered his passport.
Armour said the approximately 30 supporters in the courtroom had pooled together $1,200 for Tounisi's bail. They also brought a steadfast commitment to ensure his obedience to the court's rules, she added.
"We present a community of people who care for this young man," she said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Ridgway, however, had argued that evidence from the investigation revealed that the adults in Tounisi's life -- including his father -- had failed to dissuade him from plans to engage in violent jihad.
In one recorded phone conversation, an unidentified family member allegedly described how Tounisi had been warned he would not die a martyr in Syria as he hoped.
"You will die like roadkill," Ridgway said the relative claimed to have told Tounisi.
"One would have hoped this chapter would have ended," said Ridgway, noting the numerous warnings. "It didn't."
Ridgway also called Tounisi resourceful, noting how that despite his lack of financial resources, he managed to purchase a plane ticket to Turkey for $850 so he could meet a handler who would help him over the border into Syria.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, said she could recall only a handful of cases nationally in which suspects in terror-related cases had been released pending trial, saying judges have taken a universally tough stance with suspects.
"At some point we're going to figure out how to have gradations of severity from one kind of alleged involvement in terrorism to another," said Greenberg, who was not commenting on Tounisi's case. "It will show up in detentions and sentencings first. And we haven't seen it yet."
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