York police still grimace at the case of a local teenager who pledged himself to ISIS and planned to massacre U.S. troops but was released after just a year in a juvenile detention center.
Nearly three years after Zakaryia Abdin was arrested on the eve of his planned attack, York law enforcement officers testified at the State House on Thursday in favor of a proposal that would have jailed the former York Comprehensive High School student for at least a decade.
“If this can happen in York — in rural, small town South Carolina — it can happen anywhere,” York Police Department Chief Andy Robinson told a S.C. House committee. “Nowhere is immune to any of this.”
The proposal by House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, would criminalize the act of “furthering terrorism,” requiring prison sentences of at least a decade for anyone who plots a terror attack and at least five years for anyone who helps fund or support the act.
After lying dormant for a year, the proposal — aimed, in part, at juveniles like Abdin who more easily can avoid serious federal charges — was OK’d unanimously by two House committees Thursday, springing to the House floor in a single day.
But it has critics.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, helped halt the proposal last year. Thursday, Rutherford blasted it as a waste of time and money that won’t deter the radicalization of homegrown terrorists.
S.C. teachers and parents will be more hesitant to report teenagers to the police if they know those children could be sent to prison for a decade, Rutherford said. Instead, he said, the state should spend money to hire social workers and mental-health counselors to work with troubled youths.
”This is not about the business of the state that we should be considering, which is how to prevent attacks,” Rutherford said.
But Robert Hamilton, director of Homeland Security for the York County Sheriff's Department, said Pope's proposal would be used only against would-be terrorists who have been "seduced" by extremist groups and are beyond a counselor's ability to help.
S.C. schools are reporting more and more shooting and bombing threats, particularly since the Feb. 14 massacre that left 17 students and staffers dead at a Parkland, Fla., high school, according to Ryan Alphin, executive director of the S.C. Law Enforcement Officers’ Association.
But most of those threats aren’t credible, Hamilton said. Instead, they are made by students who were bullied or had a bad day. He said Pope's proposal is meant to keep the public safe from rare credible threats, like Abdin's.
Abdin, of Syrian descent, was released by a parole board in 2016 over the objection of York County law enforcement officials. The board noted Abdin had been convicted on a gun charge – not the more serious terrorism accusations that federal prosecutors had declined to pursue.
He was arrested by the FBI last year after trying to board a plane in Charleston and join ISIS.
Pope's bill would prohibit judges or parole boards from releasing those offenders early. It will be at least April before the proposal can get a vote on the House floor, as House members are taking a one-week break next week.