There are new headlines almost monthly about someone that's been arrested for trying to join the Islamic State, known as ISIS. Many of them may not have realized, prior to their arrest, that they were doing something illegal. As U.S. citizens, people tend to be accustomed to the idea that they have the freedom to associate with like-minded people, and the U.S. isn't officially at war with ISIS, so how can these acts be criminal?
The Patriot Act Gives Broad Prosecutorial Power For Material Support.
The U.S. Patriot Act criminalizes virtually any type of material support for any group deemed to be a terrorist organization by the United States. While you probably could expect that things like money laundering, financial support, procuring weapons or explosives, and providing forged documents are all illegal—you may not realize that offering humanitarian aid like food or blankets, advice, and transportation to someone in those organizations is also illegal.
However, even political advocacy for any of these groups is illegal—which means merely espousing your pro-ISIS leanings on Facebook can be a crime. Attempting to join the Islamic State falls under the definition of trying to provide the group with "personnel."
The Potential Penalties Are Severe.
While the Patriot Act provides a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for any of these acts (or vastly more, if anyone gets killed as a result of any of your actions), the reality can be much worse. Federal investigators often find out about a person's political or religious leanings through social media and will sometimes pretend to be another person also interested in joining. That can end up leading to conspiracy charges. For example, one young woman who was tagged with a conspiracy charge that way is now facing a 20-year prison term and a $250,000 fine for a single offense. If you're charged with multiple offenses or "counts," the penalties can be added on top of each other.
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself?
Simply put, no matter how strongly you feel about the religious or political tenants of an organization, check to see if they're considered a terrorist group before you engage in any activity that could be considered against the Patriot Act—even so much as supportive tweet on Twitter can be a problem. The U.S. State Department keeps an updated list of foreign terrorist organizations. If a group is on there, it's best to put your support elsewhere.
Keep in mind that government agents are allowed to lie to you and pretend to be someone they aren't, which means that you should be leery of anyone who wants to make your acquaintance over your supposedly shared beliefs. And, if they ask you for your assistance to do something illegal (like provide them with some forged or stolen documents) and you willingly agree, that generally isn't considered entrapment.
If you're concerned that you may have realized too late that you've gotten involved with something like ISIS or done something that could violate the Patriot Act, don't wait to see if anything comes of it—contact a defense attorney like Maury K Cutler right away to discuss your situation.