The federal terrorism investigation of Joseph D. Jones began in earnest back in 2015, when the Zion Police Department summoned him for questioning about the recent murder of a friend, records show.
Though Jones claimed to have no information, his attorney said the Zion police threatened to arrest him if he didn’t come in. So he did. And there, in the police station lobby, records show Jones met a man of Indo-Pakistani descent sporting a large beard and traditional clothes.
That man turned out to be one of several undercover feds who would cross paths with Jones and Edward Schimenti during a lengthy terror investigation. Eventually, in 2019, a jury would find Jones and Schimenti guilty of a conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State, in part by collecting cellphones they thought would be used overseas as detonators.
Still, U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood said Wednesday that Jones’ crime struck her as “one of less seriousness” on the greater spectrum of terrorism cases. So she handed Jones a 12-year prison sentence at the end of a lengthy hearing, noting that Jones did not plan his own attack or make actual contact with the Islamic State, as far as anyone knows.
She also agreed with defense attorneys that “the government was persistent in their efforts to determine whether Mr. Jones might ever be a threat.”
Federal prosecutors sought a 17-year sentence for Jones, arguing that he “supported and celebrated ISIS and their brutally violent ways.” They said Jones’ and Schimenti’s online activity — including the sharing by Jones of a video called “Some of the Deadly Stabbing Ways: Do not Forget to Poison the Knife” — led the FBI to create a “ruse scenario” to determine the true intentions of the childhood friends from Zion.
Though prosecutors acknowledged that “Schimenti brought Jones into the scheme,” they have said “Jones was equally eager to help.”
During a hearing in Wood’s courtroom last month, Jones apologized to the judge and his family. Seated while wearing an orange jumpsuit with a facemask dangling from one ear, Jones said he’d made a “grave mistake that has changed my life and the life of my family.”
When he returned to Wood’s courtroom Wednesday, Jones asked to speak further and added, “I am not a terrorist. I never had any intention of doing anything involving this crime. I allowed these people to play on my sympathies.”
Jones’ defense attorneys say Jones was born to a military family in Oklahoma and, following a troubled childhood, began to turn his life around through Islam. They also insist that, absent the feds’ intervention, “It is vanishingly unlikely that Joseph would have ever engaged in this crime.” But a jury rejected his legal defense of entrapment at trial in 2019. In a 32-page opinion filed Feb. 18, the judge denied Jones and Schimenti a new trial or acquittal.
Though she wrote that Jones “presented substantial evidence that he was reluctant to provide material support to ISIS,” the judge concluded “there was sufficient evidence in the record for the jury to conclude that Jones was interested in becoming involved in the secret world of ISIS facilitators that the FBI manufactured.”
Late in 2015, records show Jones struck up a relationship with the undercover agent who met Jones at the Zion police station. That person, who called himself Omar, asked Jones if he’d “ever thought about going over to the caliphate?” Jones replied, “Every night and day.” Omar also told Jones he knew a person who could help facilitate travel to join the Islamic State.
That man, who went by the name Bilal, turned out to be a second undercover agent.
Meanwhile, the FBI also sent a confidential informant to get a job with Schimenti’s employer. The pair got to know each other and discussed the Islamic State. The informant, a recent refugee from Iraq known to Schimenti as Muhamed, told Schimenti he had a brother in the Islamic State, and he hoped to join him in Syria one day.
Muhamed later told Schimenti that Islamic State fighters were being tracked by drones through compromised cellphones. He also told Schimenti he thought Islamic State fighters could use cellphones for bombs.
Schimenti introduced Muhamed to Jones, who then reached out to Bilal, thinking that Bilal could help Muhamed travel into Islamic State territory, records show. Jones said, “Brother, there is another brother who is ready.”
Jones also gave cellphones to Muhamed, declining to be compensated for them but saying he needed “something for the hereafter.” He also promised to give additional phones to Muhamed through Muhamed’s aunt after Muhamed traveled to join the Islamic State.
“The evidence at trial showed that Schimenti and Jones both understood that the phones would be used for bombs,” Wood wrote in her Feb. 18 opinion.
On April 7, 2017, Schimenti and Jones ate dinner with Muhamed and then drove him to O’Hare Airport, believing he would be traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State.