By Bryan Cohen
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A California man who prosecutors say was on his way to Syria to join an al Qaeda splinter group was arrested on Monday near the U.S.-Canada border in Washington state on a terrorism charge, federal officials said.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that 20-year-old Nicholas Teausant, an American-born convert to Islam, had planned to cross into Canada and travel on to Syria to join Islamist militants.
A criminal complaint outlining the accusations against Teausant said he wanted to join an al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which it said was also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"My designs have me staying there (in Syria) and being on every news station in the world," the criminal complaint quoted Teausant as telling a paid FBI informant last month.
"I'm going to be a commander and I'm going to be on the front of every single newspaper in the country," he said. "Like I want my face on FBI's top 12 most wanted. Because that means I'm doing something right."
The complaint said Teausant planned to join the group to engage in jihad, or Islamic holy struggle, and to fight the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which is battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war.
ISIL, a small but powerful force that emerged from the Sunni Islamist insurgency in neighboring Iraq and has attracted many foreign militants to its ranks, opposes the Assad government but has also fought rival rebel factions.
Teausant also spoke of wanting to target the subway system in Los Angeles on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day, according to the U.S. complaint, but discontinued his involvement over fears authorities had caught wind of it.
Teausant was arrested near the border in Blaine, Washington, on a charge of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
He joins a small number of American converts to Islam who have been accused of taking up arms, or attempting to do so, in the name of religion. Among the most famous of those was John Walker Lindh, who was captured in Afghanistan and has been in a U.S. prison since 2002 for aiding the Taliban.
Still, the phenomenon of Islamic converts turning to militancy is relatively rare, particularly in the United States where the Muslim population is more integrated than in many parts of Europe, said David Rapoport, a retired political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"My impression is that when you have a convert who seems to suddenly decide he's going to fight, he was likely hostile from the start," said Rapoport, also co-editor of Terrorism and Political Violence, an academic journal.
Teausant showed little emotion in a brief court appearance in Seattle on Monday as his lawyer asked that his case be transferred to California, a request granted by the judge. Teausant was ordered to remain in custody pending his transfer to California.
A student at San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton, California, Teausant was also a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, enlisting in 2012.
But as of December, he was in the process of being released from the National Guard, where he held the rank of private, because he "did not meet the minimum qualifications to continue," according to the complaint. He had not gone through basic U.S. combat training.
Teausant told the FBI informant that he had training in marksmanship, mapping and physical agility, and that he had a "very serious military side."
He also told the informant that he doesn't "get squirmy" at the sight of blood and at one point said he would kill his mother, whom he described as a non-believer, if she interfered with his plans.
When the informant told him that if he decided not to proceed with his plans, the pair could still be friends, Teausant said he had made up his mind, according to the complaint.
"I prayed about it like you said. My resolve is pretty clean cut," the complaint quoted Teausant as saying.
(Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Cynthia Osterman, Mohammad Zargham and Lisa Shumaker)