Live 5 Investigates: Abdin’s early release and state terrorism law

(Source: SC Legislature)
(Source: SC Legislature)

ROCK HILL, SC (WCSC) - Wednesday, a Ladson teenager pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges in Charleston's federal courthouse.

The FBI says Zakaryia Abdin tried to fly from here to Jordan last week to join ISIS.

But as we first told you last week, it's not the first time investigators suspected his terrorist ties.

Now we are learning more about how he was arrested the first time and why he wasn't charged with more serious crimes then.

Zakaryia Abdin was arrested in York County when he was only 16 years old.

"He was just as much a threat then as he is now," York Police Chief Andy Robinson told Carter Coyle in an interview over Skype.

For the first time, Chief Robinson can talk openly about the 2015 case his detectives never forgot.

"'If I were to stop you on your way to carry out one of these plans, what would you do?'" Robinson says the detective asked Abdin in an interview. "And he just looked him in the face and said 'I would kill you.'"

York Police involvement started when they got a tip from someone at Abdin's high school in town. Robinson said at first it was hard to believe.

"So at first it was like, this is York… this is a small city. It's probably nothing but we'll look into it."
But, he said, that's why they take all tips seriously. After pursuing the information, Robinson and his officers were shocked.

They believe Abdin was planning to rob a gun store and work with an accomplice in North Carolina to attack a military base.

Robinson said there's still some confusion as to why Abdin wasn't charged with federal crimes at that time.

"We were anticipating the FBI would make a federal terrorism charge on this person," he said.
York County Solicitor Kevin Brackett told us he understood it was because of Abdin's age.

He was told no state terrorism charges applied because Abdin didn't actually carry out an attack. The strictest charge they could come up with was a misdemeanor illegal possession of a weapon.
Brackett said in court, they strongly urged the judge to consider a strict sentence. The Judge ordered the max for a juvenile, an indeterminate sentence.

Brackett and Robinson assumed Abdin would be in detention at least until he turned 21 years old.
"We were pretty sure he was going to continue with these activities," Robinson said. "I was literally shocked when I found out he was being released."
Chief Robinson and Solicitor Brackett both objected to the juvenile parole board, but Abdin ended up being released from juvenile detention early a few months ago.
We asked the Department for Juvenile Justice for more information about Abdin's release, but a spokesperson said they
are confined by confidentiality of Juvenile Records. He shared a link describing South Carolina's juvenile justice system process.
Since then, York officials reached out to State Representative Tommy Pope to make permanent changes to state law. Pope proposed a bill this session he says would crack down on suspected terrorists in South Carolina, even if they don't actually carry out an attack. He said providing support to terrorist organizations should be more than a misdemeanor charge.
"Terrorists are not having to hijack a plane. They're not having to sneak somebody across the border," Pope said. "They're able to harvest these folks - unfortunately often times young people- right in our communities. So Law enforcement need the tools to protect us."

He says House Bill 3208 would give local officers a way to charge people who support terrorism without waiting for federal charges. In January, Charleston Representative William Crosby added his name as a sponsor to the bill.

"I know from my experience as a prosecutor, sometimes we can be more nimble than the feds can in certain circumstances," Pope said. "From a courtroom standpoint, litigation, this would allow our local officers and prosecutors to move on these cases and head off these issues."
The bill is still being considered in committee. Pope thinks it will hit home with legislators now that he can reference the specific case that inspired the bill.

Pope said there has been discussion on whether HB 3208 should include juveniles, and he believes it should. "We always want to rehabilitate in the criminal justice system if we can, but our first job is to protect. That's what we've got to focus on."
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon also reference the proposed bill while discussing Homeland Security gr ant funding with Live 5 News reporter Liza Lucas Wednesday. "The federal law does not cover all situations, particularly if you're dealing with juveniles," he said.

Robinson said he was thankful York County's sheriff worked with Cannon and other officials to keep tabs on Abdin when he moved to Ladson. Brackett said he was relieved the FBI arrested him before something more grave might have happened.
Earlier this week, the FBI unsealed an Affadavit highlighting communications between Abdin and an undercover agent who posed as a member of ISIS.

They say Abdin was willing to commit terrorism on U.S. soil if he couldn't make it overseas.
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