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Syrian gets 8 years for lying to U.S. officials about his ties to terrorism

Mohamad Saeed Kodaimati had a plan to get his family out of Syria.

In 2014, he was living in the war-torn country and traveling to neighboring Turkey to look for work. When he couldn't find a job, the family decided he would return to the United States, where he had lived as a youngster, to find employment.

His plan hit a snag when he was arrested in April. He admitted later in San Diego federal court that he lied to federal authorities about his connections to international terrorism during his time in Syria.

He was sentenced Monday to eight years in prison.

Kodaimati, 25, pleaded guilty in October to one count of making false statements to FBI and State Department agents who questioned him at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. According to court documents, he admitted he lied when he told the agents he did not know anybody who was a member of Islamic State — also know as ISIS or ISIL — or Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-backed terrorist group fighting the Syrian regime.

An investigation revealed a Facebook message in which Kodaimati appeared to admit he had worked as a mediator between people in his hometown, outside Aleppo, and Islamic State. He later admitted that he knew a person who joined the terrorist group, and that he once sought that person's help when a friend was kidnapped by Islamic State.

There was no indication that Kodaimati joined the organization, prosecutors said.

Assistant U.S. Atty. John Parmley said during the sentencing hearing that Kodaimati told agents at the embassy in Turkey that he had not been in combat nor had he been involved with Al Nusra in any way. Once again, one of his Facebook posts suggested otherwise.

According to court documents, Kodaimati admitted eventually that he had participated in a raid. Al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army asked people in his village to go and fight at a political prison as a diversionary tactic. Between April and July 2014, Kodaimati and others from his village fired at the prison from a distance.

He said he did not know if anyone was killed. His Facebook pictures showed him posing with guns.

"He was out fighting," Parmley said in court. "He was shooting at people and people were shooting at him."

Kodaimati did not make any statements Monday as he stood before U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia. Instead, his attorney, Barbara Donovan, described her client as someone "with a lot of integrity" who is loved by everybody who knows him.

She talked about his personal history, noting that he had lived in the United States for about five years: first as a child, when he was brought here by his father, and later as a teenager. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008.

At 17, he lived in Charlotte, N.C., then moved to San Diego in 2010 to live with an uncle. In December 2012, he returned to Syria, where he and his family faced constant attacks by the Syrian army.

When he tried to return to San Diego via Turkey in March 2015, he was told he was on a no-fly list and would have to be interviewed at the embassy.

In a letter to the judge, Kodaimati gave his own account of what happened next.

"When I was questioned by the FBI in Turkey, I was scared and did not want to be stopped from traveling to the U.S.," he wrote. "I am not a terrorist, do not like violence and whatever I did while in Turkey in Syria was necessary for survival.

"My family is living in a war zone where they are being bombed by barrel bombs. It is a desperate situation."

Kodaimati's eight-year term is the maximum for which he was eligible under the plea agreement.

dana.littlefield@sandiegouniontribune.com

Littlefield writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 15, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Prison for lies about ISIS - Man gets an 8-year sentence for lying to U.S. officials about his terrorism ties during his time in Syria." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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