Waterville teen gets maximum sentence for conspiring in ISIS-inspired plot

Published: Nov. 6, 2023 at 7:45 AM EST
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WATERVILLE, Maine (WMTW) - Xavier Pelkey, a 19-year-old from Waterville. was sentenced Monday to the maximum 15 years in federal prison, followed by 20 years of supervised release, for conspiring to provide material support to the terrorism group ISIS, the first case of its kind in Maine.

“We felt that was the appropriate sentence for the court to impose, so we’re glad that the court agreed with us,” Assistant United States Attorney Craig Wolf, the lead prosecutor, told Maine’s Total Coverage after the hearing.

The case centered around a plot hatched online, with a pair of teens outside Maine, to lodge an attack on religious sites in Chicago.

“It was a very serious offense that could have led to the deaths of scores of people,” Wolf said. ‘It went beyond mere talk.”

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker handed down the sentence in Bangor federal court.

Pelkey pleaded guilty in April and has already been incarcerated for 21 months, since his arrest in February 2022.

Material support has been the most frequent federal terrorism charge levied in U.S. courts since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Pelkey is one of 246 individuals to face ISIS-related terrorism charges in the U.S. since 2014, according to the GWU Program on Extremism.

Prosecutors portrayed Pelkey as a homegrown, self-directed plotter inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but not controlled by or communicating with the terrorist group’s operatives.

Pelkey, who lived in an apartment in downtown Waterville until his arrest, admitted plotting remotely with other teenagers to attack a Shia mosque and possibly a Jewish synagogue in Chicago.

Under the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to dismiss a second criminal charge, possession of unregistered destructive devices, which carried a potential 10-year sentence.

Prosecutors have said Pelkey conspired online between November 2021 and February 2022 with teens in Illinois and Canada to carry out a mass shooting at a mosque in March 2022, as follows:

The teens chatted through encrypted messages over Instagram, with Pelkey using the name “Abdullah,” short for his Instagram username, Abdullah.ibn.ahmad.

Pelkey and another teen intended to travel by bus to Chicago, and Pelkey intended to acquire firearms and ammunition.

Pelkey had searched the internet for gun shops in Maine where he could buy semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns.

The Chicago teen possessed a Remington pump shotgun, swords, knives, a bow and arrows, multiple homemade ISIS flags.

In a search of Pelkey’s home in February 2022, FBI agents found three homemade explosive devices in a backpack in the corner of his bedroom and a hand-painted ISIS flag hanging on his bedroom wall.

In a declaration to support Pelkey’s indictment, FBI Agent Nate Jacobs wrote each device consisted of several fireworks bundled together with metal staples, pins, and increase the amount of shrapnel propelled by an explosion.

“When we first spoke with Pelkey, he told us he had ‘fireworks’ in the apartment. After we found the three devices described above, I asked him why the fireworks were taped together, and he said he wanted to make a ‘bigger boom,’” Jacobs wrote.

In a declaration to support Pelkey’s pretrial detention, FBI Agent Garrett Drew described the plot as a martyrdom operation, saying, “They did not have a plan to escape but rather their plan ended with them being shot by law enforcement,”

A handwritten note found in Pelkey’s room, depicted as draft statement to be released upon the attack, said he intended to “burst thru the door of Jihad in america and strike fear in the hearts of these kafirun nothing pisses these american kuffar off and scares em more than a term they use ‘homegrown terrorist’ and I will claim this term let them cast me as a homegrown terrorist.”

“Kafirun” and “kuffar” are variations on Arabic terms for non-believers.

In a pre-sentencing memorandum, Chris MacLean, Pelkey’s federally appointed defense attorney, argued for leniency, no more than six years, citing Pelkey’s youth and other factors.

“The Court should consider that he was just three months beyond a juvenile sentence for this offense,” MacLean wrote.

The defense attorney described Pelkey as someone who has accepted responsibility for his actions, has no prior violent criminal history, and “whose life has been marked by tragedy, isolation, and abuse.”

MacLean said Pelkey’s parents were both drug addicts, and his father abused him until abandoning him at five. At nine, a stepfather he had looked up to died in front of him from a seizure.

“He witnessed physical and verbal domestic abuse between his mother and her various domestic partners,” MacLean wrote, and was at times removed from his mother’s custody by the Department of Health and Human Services due to her drug addiction.

His “search for belonging and support” led Pelkey to embrace Islam as a teenager, MacLean wrote, but he became radicalized online during the pandemic -- “indoctrinated by extremist ideologies and introduced to the individuals and their plan that led to his arrest.”

MacLean also noted the devices found in Pelkey’s home consisted of fireworks and firecrackers wrapped in electrical tape, and Pelkey never had any explosives training.

Pelkey attended Waterville public schools from kindergarten through part of 9th grade in 2018-19 but left school during his freshman year. He has since earned a high school diploma.