The FBI first began watching Adel Daoud in 2011 after he made comments online and posted violent material while he was in high school and living with his parents in a Chicago suburb. A year later, undercover agents initiated a conversation with the 17-year-old.
Daoud and the agents ended up in a parking garage later that year, where an undercover agent showed him a Jeep Cherokee that was filled with 1,000 pounds of fake bombs. Daoud reportedly parked the car outside of a bar in downtown Chicago, walked away and pressed a button that he believed would detonate the vehicle. He was arrested immediately.
His family believes the government entrapped an impressionable teenager and led him into a crime. There are also substantial questions about his mental health. He asserted at one point that “cosmic aliens” in the government were persecuting him.
After six years, his federal court case on charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, among other charges, was finally resolved after he entered into a plea agreement. The government asked for 40 years. A probation officer recommended 15 years. U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman gave him 16 years with 45 years of supervised release and mandatory counseling on violent extremism.
Coleman said that though Daoud’s actions could not be taken lightly, he “continually did what teenage boys do, and that is to talk big.” She called his incarceration for the first seven years of his adulthood, including witnessing a cellmate’s suicide, “traumatizing.”
But in March 2021, a federal appeals court took the extraordinary step of reaching into Daoud’s case and overturning his sentence, calling Coleman’s judgment “substantively unreasonable.” It ordered a resentencing by a different federal judge, which begins June 22.
The new sentencing could result in substantially more time in prison for Daoud, now 29, who is currently scheduled for release in 2026. Legal experts told HuffPost they were perplexed by the use of the so-called Rule 36 and the underlying message it sends to federal judges about who is in control over their cases.
Daoud maintains his innocence, telling HuffPost via email that he never had any intent for a violent plot.
“I never planned to bomb anything before the FBI persuaded me using my religious beliefs and the fact that they talked to me until I trusted them,” he said.
While awaiting trial, Daoud was also charged with soliciting the murder of the undercover FBI agent involved in the sting operation ― which was discovered through the use of a jailhouse informant who was paid $15,000 by the FBI ― and for assaulting another inmate with a weapon.
His trial was delayed for years due to questions about his mental competence. In October 2012, his mother said her son was “not the person with a complete mind.” In court, Daoud spoke about conspiracies against him and said that “lizard people” and “cosmic aliens” were a part of the government. Before the sting, Daoud suggested using “flying cars” during a possible terrorist attack in conversations with the FBI.
In court, his mood fluctuated, at times jovial, smiling and waving to judges, and at other times distraught for “making a bad name for the Muslim community.”
In 2016, a judge temporarily declared him mentally ill and not competent to proceed to trial. Daoud was transferred to a psychiatric treatment facility. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court documents, and was put on antipsychotic medication.
Two years later, the court ruled Daoud could be restored to competence with medication. That same year, Daoud entered an Alford plea ― a type of plea agreement in which the criminal defendant admits there are sufficient facts to find them guilty but maintains their innocence. After his sentencing in 2019, his case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly.
Daoud and his lawyer parted ways in 2022, and he is now representing himself with a standby counsel. The question of whether or not he is taking his medication remained a point of discussion, according to court documents, as recently as last year.
Daoud’s former attorney, Thomas Durkin, and his current standby counsel, Quinn Michaelis, declined to comment.
In an almost 150-page sentencing memorandum, Durkin argued that at every step of the way, law enforcement could have de-escalated the situation and chose not to, reflecting a binary “terrorist or no” attitude. For example, the FBI could have alerted Daoud’s family when they first noticed his comments online, Durkin said in a court filing, and warned him that the comments could lead to legal trouble. Durkin cited a similar case concerning a young woman who wanted to marry an Islamic State fighter ― FBI agents met with her several times before charging her, giving her the opportunity to turn away from her plans.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas declined to comment, noting that the case is ongoing.
More than 80% of the more than 1,000 total terrorism prosecutions since Sept. 11, 2001, involved a law enforcement sting, an informant or both, according to the Trial and Terror database, which was last updated this month. Illinois has had a total of 24 terrorism prosecutions since 2001, and 15 involved an informant.
In Daoud’s case, his attorneys argued that he had neither the ability nor the original intent to commit a crime without the help of those involved in the sting, referred to in the documents as “imperfect entrapment.”
“Daoud’s interactions with the [agents]... show that it was the [agents] who first came up with the idea of a car bomb, before the FBI would go on to actually acquire the car, construct the fake bomb, and essentially do everything for Daoud,” said Daoud’s defense team in a sentencing memorandum from April 2019.
Cases in which the defendant could claim entrapment have never resulted in an acquittal or dismissal in a post-9/11 U.S. court, according to University of South Carolina law professor Wadie Said, partially because of an assumption that Muslim men are predisposed to these kinds of crimes.
“The reason why entrapment hasn’t worked in a terrorism case is because, when you see a Muslim defendant, usually a young man, and you see that they’ve been charged with terrorism, what does the average American think?” said Said, who wrote a 2015 book on terrorism prosecutions. “They think, ‘Yeah, that’s a terrorist.’”
But according to court filings, the government argued that the actions Daoud took toward detonating what he thought was a bomb were enough to show a predisposition toward violence. They cite, among other things, his interest in consuming content about terrorism, his conversations with an undercover agent about places they could attack, such as bars or malls, and his effort in planning out the attack along with the agent.
Daoud’s story could have had a different trajectory if it wasn’t assumed by law enforcement that violence was inevitable, according to Kathy Manley, legal director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on the repercussions of the “war on terror.”
“Instead of giving them a gun with blanks and telling them to go try and shoot somebody so they can send them away for life ― that’s the sting operation model ― they could give them services, they could look at what may be leading them in that direction and help,” Manley said.
The Family Falls Apart
After the judge sentenced Daoud in 2019, the federal prosecutors quickly appealed that decision, calling on the federal court to step in.
“People of any age can appreciate the seriousness of a plan to detonate a 1,000-pound bomb capable of killing hundreds, and the criminal justice system cannot countenance otherwise,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Georgia Alexakis in a 2020 brief.
The appellate court ultimately agreed, noting in its decision that the “district court’s sentence in his case fell outside the range of reasonable sentences.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit went on to say that the district court “downplayed the extreme seriousness” of the charges and “sterilized Daoud’s offense conduct.”
In November 2020, the appellate court vacated the federal district court’s sentencing.
“The government appeals that sentence on the ground that it was substantively unreasonable,” the judges said. “We agree. We vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.”
But the 7th Circuit court didn’t just call for a new sentence, it used Circuit Rule 36 to assign a new judge to the case — a legal provision set by the 7th Circuit that allows it to modify or reverse a judgment and assign a new judge.
Erica Zunkel, the associate director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, which represents clients charged with federal felonies and advocates for criminal justice reform, told HuffPost that, although she was not surprised that the government appealed the sentencing decision, it was rare for the higher court to weigh in so heavily and overturn the sentence.
“It’s the appellate court saying we disagree with what the judge said,” Zunkel, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said. “Our system would not work well if we are constantly second-guessing judges.”
“The judge knew the case inside and out. She heard a lot of evidence. She reviewed everything,” she added. “It’s almost saying, ‘We don’t trust her to have this case anymore, so we are using that rule to say that a different judge has to look at this for a new sentencing,’ and that’s very rare.”
“The underlying message is, we want a new judge to look at this anew even if it’s complex,” Zunkel said.
Coleman’s office said it could not comment on pending litigation.
Ahmed Daoud, Adel’s father, has attended every court date for the last decade. He speaks to his son almost every day on the phone.
“I’ve been suffering for over 10 years, looking for justice,” said Ahmed Daoud, an immigrant from Egypt who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years.
Ahmed firmly believes that his son was “brainwashed” by the government and that what his son needs is family and treatment, not a longer sentence.
“I don’t believe this rubbish, to kill people for no reason,” he said.
The effect of Daoud’s case was swift. Ahmed, who’d never as much as had a parking ticket, watched his life unravel.
At work, people were afraid of him. Ahmed, who once owned property and a car dealership, immediately lost his business. His customers stopped paying their debts, he said. One of his tenants said she would not deal with the father of a terrorist. In February 2015, Ahmed Daoud underwent heart surgery due to the mounting stress, he said.
The investigation also took a toll on his family, which has been broken up.
His other children moved out, afraid of being associated with their brother. His wife of 33 years divorced him because Ahmed spent most of their money on lawyers and was afraid the government would come after her next.
“Thirty-three years, I never had a problem with my wife,” he said. “But she was scared.”
As for his son, Ahmed said, his love is unwavering and he seeks solace in his faith that people will believe his truth.
“My son was kidnapped from me,” Ahmed said. “Justice is what we want. Besides that, we don’t need anything else.”