A former Sacramento youth counselor for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is awaiting extradition to the U.S. on suspicion he lied to the FBI about his role fighting alongside Islamic militants in Syria.
Brian Arthur Dempsey Sr., 46, faces five charges of false statements involving international terrorism, up to eight years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years probation if convicted.
Dempsey supervised wards and oversaw rehabilitation programs for CDCR’s Division of Juvenile Justice – then known as the California Youth Authority – from March 2001 until he resigned in April 2012, said Bill Sessa, CDCR spokesman. He commuted from his Sacramento home to two Stockton-area prisons as well as Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione over that 11-year span.
In July 2013, Dempsey left Sacramento for the Syrian city A’zaz, about an hour from Aleppo, near the Turkish border. There, he and an accomplice referred to as “Person A” joined rebel fighters in a group called Ahrar al-Sham, according to federal court documents.
Dempsey stayed in A’zaz for 1 1/2 months before attempting to fly home through Fiumicino International Airport in Rome, where he was detained by an FBI special agent. He told the agent he and Person A had gone to Syria to help refugees from the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but ended up sitting around with no opportunity to lend aid. There were no significant refugee camps in A’zaz or Aleppo at the time, according to federal court documents.
Unable to fly home, Dempsey was interviewed again in Italy in January 2014, where he reportedly admitted to lying about his militant activity in the previous discussion. Dempsey also told the FBI agent he had instructed his brother not to tell government officials about his plan to go to Syria, contradicting a previous statement that he had asked his brother to check with federal authorities whether doing so was legal, according to federal court documents.
Virtually everyone Dempsey met in A’zaz was fighting for Assad’s regime or a rebel group, including members of well-known terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, according to statements he reportedly made to the agent. He and an attorney discussed a possible plea deal with the U.S. government for nine months until he reportedly cut off communication and fled Italy in October 2014.
Dempsey remained off the radar until he was arrested on Jan. 18, 2017, by British authorities. The U.S. Eastern District of California Court ruled to unseal his indictment six days later.
Neither the United States nor the United Nations Security Council has formally recognized Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization, though countries that back the Syrian government – including Russia and Iran – have long been pushing for it to be classified as such. The rebel group had an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 members as of last year.
Dempsey’s contacts in the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front could have been enough to raise the FBI’s suspicions despite Ahrar al-Sham’s somewhat ambiguous status, George Washington University research fellow Bennett Clifford said. People can be relatively easily added to the federal government’s no-fly list despite a lack of material support for terrorism, said Clifford, who co-authored a study on Americans becoming jihadi released last week.
Dempsey converted from Catholicism to Islam sometime between 2011 and 2013 and was one of the oldest Americans suspecting of turning to jihad this decade, according to the study. Public records show his last listed address in Sacramento was on the 4700 block of Large Oak Court, half a mile from the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims’ offices.
“Given the lack of publicly available evidence about these cases, it is especially hard to determine how a former correctional officer and a former ‘sovereign citizen’ who both converted to Islam met one another, and decided to travel to Syria to fight,” the study said. “Dempsey’s eventual extradition and prosecution in the U.S. may bring more details to light. However, these cases are reminders that the social connections that influence travelers are not always straightforward or conventional.”
Sessa declined to discuss Dempsey’s job performance or reputation within the prisons, citing California Department of Corrections policies prohibiting him from discussing ex-employees’ job performances.
Editor’s note: This article was updated Feb. 14 to correctly identify the California Youth Academy.