Nicholas Teausant’s journey to prison began in April 2013, when he started trolling the Internet in search of jihadist websites.
The Lodi-area Delta College student was then 20 and a convert to Islam who had joined the religion to gain common ground with a young Muslim woman who had attracted him.
Seeking a way into the turmoil and excitement of overseas battlefields, he posted messages describing his desire to fight in Syria and soon became enamored of a group that would later come to be known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
He downloaded a how-to booklet for terrorist fighters from the Islamic State’s Inspire magazine and signed onto Instagram using the screen name “Assad Teausant bigolsmurf.”
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“… I would love to join Allah’s army but I don’t even know how to start,” Teausant wrote in an Instagram post.
That message eventually made its way to the FBI and an investigation that culminated Tuesday with Teausant’s guilty plea to a federal terrorism charge.
Now 22, he entered the plea in U.S. District Court in Sacramento and faces up to 15 years in prison on March 8, when he is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge John A. Mendez for attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Teausant spoke only briefly during Tuesday’s court hearing, softly answering, “Yes, your honor,” to questions from the judge and acknowledging that he continues to take medication for his schizophrenia and seizures.
His plea, which came in conjunction with him signing a five-page admission to his online activities and his attempt to travel to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, comes 21 months after he was arrested on a bus in Blaine, Wash., as he tried to enter Canada on his way to the Middle East.
Since then, Teausant has been in custody while his public defenders dealt alternately with negotiations for a plea deal and a delay in the proceedings when he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
His lawyers have described him in court papers as a boastful, hapless young man who “couldn’t provide material support to a pup tent.”
But U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, who sat in court Tuesday watching the guilty plea, said afterward that Teausant was a danger to the community and an example of how easy it is for some disaffected youths, especially those with mental illnesses, to become radicalized by online propaganda.
“Cases like this have to be taken very seriously,” Wagner said. “I don’t think I need to elaborate on the fact that there has been a lot of concern about ISIS and people becoming radicalized and going overseas to join ISIS.
“So anytime that we find out there’s potentially someone going over there to engage in violence, we have to take action, and that’s what the FBI did in this case.”
Wagner said his office has not decided what kind of prison sentence it will ask Mendez to impose, but he added that it will “seek significant prison time.”
“It’s obviously a very serious offense and it’s a very serious issue, so I think we have to seek a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the crime,” Wagner said. “At the same time, we recognize that there are some mitigating factors as well.
“Mr. Teausant does have some psychological issues. In the pantheon of aspiring terrorists, he’s probably not one of the most aggravated, but again, he had the potential to be dangerous.”
At the time that Teausant’s online dalliance with foreign terror groups began, the Islamic State was largely unknown. Since his arrest, however, it has ballooned into a worldwide terror scourge whose most shocking recent actions killed scores in bombings and shootings in Paris and Beirut, attacks that have generated airstrikes against Islamic State targets and international talks on how to destroy the group.
Teausant is one of hundreds of Americans the government says have tried to travel to Syria and the surrounding region to fight for the Islamic State, which became infamous for its video recordings of brutal beheadings and prisoners being burned alive.
Authorities say its sophisticated social media operations have lured many to leave their homelands to join the group.
Teausant never made it that far.
The California National Guard washout was arrested after allegedly boasting to a government informant that he wanted to attack targets in the United States, including blowing up the Los Angeles subway system and his daughter’s day care center, which he considered a “Zionist reform church.”
He denied in an August 2014 jailhouse interview with The Sacramento Bee that he would ever have launched attacks in the United States and that he posed no threat to his fellow citizens.
“I’m tired of seeing myself portrayed as a crazy terrorist who wants to kill all Americans,” he said then. “I specifically told the informant and the FBI and my lawyers that I’m no threat to Americans and I just want to go home, back to my books and my daughter and my family.”
Instead, he will go directly from jail to a federal prison. The only question remaining: For how long?