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Florida man pleads guilty to attempting to join al Qaeda group

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A 20-year-old Florida man pleaded guilty on Wednesday to conspiring to travel to the Middle East to join an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group and receive military training as part of a holy war, or jihad.

Shelton Thomas Bell admitted he recruited an unnamed juvenile and the two flew to the Middle East in 2012 with the intention of joining the Ansar al-Sharia group, according to his plea agreement.

The two traveled to Amman, Jordan, in an effort to reach Yemen but were deported by Jordan to the United States.

"If you ask me if was going for jihad in Yemen, I say yes," Bell told federal agents when he returned, according to a statement from prosecutors.

Bell faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. In the plea deal, the federal prosecutors offered to recommend a lighter sentence to the judge because Bell took responsibility for his actions.

Justice Department spokesman William Daniel said he did not know details of what the sentence recommendation might be. No date has been set for sentencing.

According to prosecutors, Bell devised a plan to travel to Yemen to join Ansar al-Sharia, a group that swears allegiance to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the United States regards as one of the most dangerous militant groups in the Middle East.

Before traveling overseas, Bell, the juvenile and another unnamed individual participated in their own version of combat training for two months in Jacksonville, prosecutors said.

Bell inspired the group with the call of Al Qaeda spokesperson, Anwar al-Awlaki, for all young people to go to Yemen "take up the fight." Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

According to prosecutors, Bell and the two individuals watched Awlaki videos, looked at pictures of dead Muslims and went on a nighttime "jihadi training mission" to destroy religious statues in a non-denominational cemetery in Jacksonville.

Other training missions took place on a gun range and involved the burning of an American flag.

Bell and the juvenile departed in September 2012 for Yemen by way of Poland and Israel, which deported them back to Poland.

From there, they flew to Jordan and bought airline tickets to Oman with the intention of walking across the border to Yemen, but were stopped by Jordanian officials, prosecutors said.

(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Kevin Gray and Andrew Hay)

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