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Law & Order

Would-Be Terrorist Sentenced To 20 Years

U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa

  A 21-year-old Jacksonville man was sentenced Wednesday to 20 years in federal prison for conspiring and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan also ordered Shelton Thomas Bell to serve a lifetime of supervision following his release from prison. Bell pleaded guilty on March 19, 2014.

Bell will also be subject to drug testing.

Corrigan's big question was who is the real Bell, describing Bell as articulate and bright with a troubled adolescence and recent diagnosis of ADHD. Corrigan said the diagnosis is not a mitigating factor for what Bell did or was trying to do.

Bell said he's sorry, is no longer a terrorist recruit, wants to start a family and get his MBA in how to combat terrorism. But the government said Bell and other terrorists cannot be rehabilitated.

According to court documents, beginning in May 2012 and continuing through at least July 18, 2012, Bell conspired to train and prepare as a combatant for overseas violent jihad, then travel from Jacksonville to the Middle East for the ultimate purpose of providing his skills to terrorists, including members of Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen. Once overseas, the plan included receiving further training and deadly weapons from Ansar al-Sharia, and then engaging in violent jihad against — and killing — others in Yemen and elsewhere.

In May 2012, Bell recruited a juvenile for the purpose of engaging in violent jihad and inspired him with the teachings of an al-Qaida spokesperson, Anwar al-Awlaki. Bell suggested traveling to Yemen to fight because of al-Awlaki's teachings — that all young people should travel to Yemen to “take up the fight.”

Bell and the juvenile subsequently agreed to travel to Israel and then make Hajj. As part of the plan, the conspirators told others, including their parents, that they were traveling overseas to make Hajj, to study, and to get an education. By July 2012, the conspirators began taking actions to train for their unlawful activities by conducting mental training that included watching al-Awlaki videos and looking at images of dead Muslims.

Another part of the training took place on July 4, 2012, when Bell conducted a late-night “jihadi training mission” that involved the destruction of religious statues in a multi-denominational cemetery located in Jacksonville. In preparation for the mission, he dressed in all black clothing, wore tactical gloves, a mask, and wrapped his shoes in black duct tape to avoid leaving footprints. Bell brought a loaded 9 mm pistol with him on the mission to use “in case any kuffar want to cause any trouble.”

Other training sessions conducted by Bell included a homemade firing range and impromptu battlefield lessons intended for recording and uploading to the Internet, to be used in the recruitment of others in the “the actions of jihad.” At the conclusion of one training session, Bell placed an American flag on a machete, burned it, and commented that the flag was “burning to the ground by the mujahidin’s hands.” To recruit other youth to travel and join in armed conflict, Bell and the juvenile also planned to take footage of their participation in armed conflict in the Middle East, once they made it there and began fighting.

The FBI seized nearly two hours worth of video and audio from Bell's computer and tablet of Bell trying to encourage other people to join the Jihad, later using the evidence in their case against him.

In one video, Bell practices shooting in the woods in Jacksonville. He's with two juveniles training for a Jihad in the Middle East.

In another clip, also filmed in Jacksonville, Bell sets off what he calls frag grenades.

Then there's more video of Bell and the same juvenile, whose identity is confidential, gearing up for a night-time mission at a cemetery in Arlington. They damaged two Christian statues, knocking the head off a Jesus figure.

"That's what I call a victory," Bell is heard saying. "(It's) better than the video games these kids play nowadays, huh?"

On Sept. 25, 2012, Bell and the juvenile left Jacksonville and flew to New York, Poland, and Tel Aviv, Israel, where they were detained by Israeli officials and deported to Poland. From there, Bell and the juvenile traveled to Jordan to stay with the juvenile's relatives.

While in Jordan, Bell and the juvenile contacted another person to assist in their plan of joining up with Ansar al-Sharia. Bell and the juvenile also bought airline tickets to Oman, believing they would fly to Oman and walk across the border to Yemen and join the armed conflict there. During their overseas travel, Bell and the juvenile took steps to avoid detection by law enforcement.

Federal agents caught the pair and brought them back to the United States before they could join forces with any terrorist group. That's when investigators found the videos. In some, the then teenager encouraged others to kill in the name of God.

"We should not deviate from the straight path," the teen says. "Yes, fighting is included. Your lives may be at stake. But what is more noble than fighting for the cause of Allah alone?"

Ultimately, Bell and the juvenile were deported from Jordan to the United States on Nov. 21, 2012.

“We must be vigilant in investigating and prosecuting United States citizens who seek to travel overseas to assist terrorists,” U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III said. “Not only do these individuals present an obvious threat abroad, they could also return to the United States after being radicalized and trained in the use of firearms, explosives, and weapons of mass destruction. Cases such as these remain a top priority for the United States Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice.”

This case was investigated by the FBI's Jacksonville Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). The JTTF is a multi-agency task force comprised of full-time personnel from the FBI, U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

"With our local, state and federal agencies working together through the JTTF, we’re able to detect, deter and defend our nation from these types of threats,” said Michelle S. Klimt, Special Agent in Charge — FBI Jacksonville Division. “We’re strongest working together and this is a perfect example of success through collaboration."

Bell will have to pay $17,000 in restitution for damage to the cemetery and cannot have contact with the unnamed juvenile involved in the case.

Bell's family didn't want to comment, but his attorney, Lisa Call, told News4Jax, "I appreciate the fact that Judge Corrigan obviously considered this case very carefully. However, the sentence imposed was longer than I had hoped for."

Bell apologized at his sentencing hearing telling the judge he didn't think about the consequences of his actions and wanted to turn his life around. He has a right to appeal his sentence within two weeks.

The juvenile was also sentenced. He'll be released when he turns 21.

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