June 12, 2013 in City

Clarkston man convicted of trying to aid terrorists

By The Spokesman-Review
Rare case

No one had previously been convicted in Eastern Washington for trying to supply technical expertise to terrorists.

A Clarkston resident who almost killed himself in an explosion three years ago was sentenced Tuesday to 12.5 years in federal prison for making a bomb and attempting to supply terrorists with bomb-making instructions.

Joseph J. Brice, 23, pleaded guilty in September to charges of manufacturing an explosive device and attempting to provide material assistance to terrorists. He will get credit for two-plus years he has already spent behind bars.

FBI Senior Agent Frank Harrill said the case was the first of its kind in Spokane and is “exceedingly rare on a national scale.” No one had ever been convicted in Eastern Washington for trying to supply technical expertise to terrorists.

The sentence came after a full day of hearings, including testimony from two FBI agents and statements from Brice and several members of his family.

The investigation began after Brice almost died three years ago. His family called it a pipe-bomb experiment gone wrong, but federal prosecutors said it was a mimic of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s complex high-explosive bomb that killed 168 people in 1995.

As the investigation unfolded, authorities found Brice had created and posted several videos on YouTube under the name “StrengthofAllah” that honored Islamic Jihadists along with tribute videos to McVeigh. They also found websites where he had shared bomb-making recipes.

An undercover FBI agent sent Brice a private message through a website asking if he “wanted to be part of the cause” and help Islamic fundamentalists create a bomb to attack Americans. The prosecutors said he agreed and provided significant, advanced bomb-making information.

On his jail-cell bunk bed, Brice etched his initials and several statements celebrating his accomplishments, an FBI agent testified. “I am now legend,” Brice wrote. He called himself a “chemistry wizard” who had “outsmarted a 70-man FBI team for over two years,” and had done so “all at age 21.”

In online postings, Brice celebrated the 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shootings that killed six and injured 13, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. He also identified personally with McVeigh, one of the most notorious terrorists in U.S. history.

“Tim’s characteristics are nearly the same as myself, physically and politically,” one of them said.

Brice spoke at his sentencing, saying he regrets his actions and that they were the result of a deep depression after his near-fatal injuries.

“I’m deeply remorseful and just want to go home,” Brice said.

His family, including three sisters and his mother who voiced support for him, was in court for the sentencing.

During a break in the proceedings, Kathy Brice said her son suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the bomb explosion three years ago and said no one in her family sees him as a danger.

“It’s horrible as a mother,” Brice said of watching her son in court. “He’s a great kid.”

She said Brice spent five months at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after the bombing, and when he got home he shut himself in his room because he was embarrassed about his scars. It was there, she said, he found comfort on the Internet, where he could be anyone he wanted to be.

U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko said the government established that Brice’s online activities started years before his accident and were indicative of dangerous behavior. One of the videos about McVeigh was posted to Brice’s YouTube channel three months before the bombing that nearly blew off both his legs.

Although not part of the charges, U.S. attorneys provided evidence that Brice had plotted to plant a bomb outside the Spokane federal building as well as rob a bank. The evidence showed a photo of the outside of the back of the federal building. A delivery truck in the photo was circled, and he had written the initials “AN” over it. The FBI agent said that stood for ammonium nitrate, the same high-explosive composition McVeigh used in Oklahoma City.

Brice’s attorney, Matthew Campbell, said the plots were just jokes and the result of poor decisions, not actual intent to harm anyone. He stopped short of calling the FBI undercover agent’s actions entrapment, but he said Brice was “goaded” into providing the man with the bomb details. He also said Brice was no more an expert on bomb making than anyone could be by reading online encyclopedias and high school chemistry books, and therefore any knowledge he provided could not have presented a threat to national security.

Campbell declined to comment after the sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Smoot had asked for a 15-year sentence for Brice.

“Whether sick or sinister, the public needs to be protected,” Smoot said. “And that is a significant sentencing factor.”

Suko called the case a tragedy for all those involved and said he read all 28 letters that Brice’s friends and family sent on his behalf.

The judge said he could not take Brice at his word that the threats of violence were a joke.

“I can’t sweep all that under the rug,” Suko said. “We are judged by what we say and do.”

Brice will undergo a mental evaluation in prison and will only be allowed to use computers for future employment purposes. He will be under lifetime supervision, although that could be amended after his release.

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