LOS ANGELES -- A California man who told an undercover FBI agent that he was committed to waging jihad and planned to travel to Pakistan to train al-Qaida fighters was sentenced Monday to 13 years in federal prison.
Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, 25, of Garden Grove pleaded guilty in December to attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. He had faced a maximum possible sentence of 15 years in prison.
"I simply do not understand how we can rehabilitate his commitment to die for his beliefs," U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter said while discussing what potential threat Nguyen might pose after his release.
Nguyen shook his head no when the judge asked if he would like to make any remarks. The bespectacled son of Vietnamese immigrants sat through the proceedings with his hands shackled at the waist, twiddling his thumbs.
In a plea agreement filed in federal court, Nguyen acknowledged meeting someone he believed to be an al-Qaida recruiter several times between August and October 2013.
The recruiter was actually an undercover FBI agent. Nguyen agreed to travel to Pakistan via Mexico to train 30 al-Qaida fighters for an ambush on coalition soldiers, authorities said.
Judge Walter said he was confident that Nguyen would have carried out the "deadly mission" if the recruiter had been with al-Qaida.
Nguyen was arrested in Santa Ana in October while waiting for a bus bound for Mexico. At the time, he had a passport with a false name, along with a hard drive containing 180 weapons training videos, authorities said.
In a lengthy argument, defense counsel Yasmin Cader said Nguyen was diagnosed while in custody with a personality disorder "on the spectrum of schizophrenia."
The diagnosis explained his susceptibility to suggestion, especially in response to the undercover agent's "skillful script" that persuaded Nguyen to buy a plane ticket to Pakistan, Cader said.
Now in treatment, Nguyen's "magical thinking" has stopped, she said.
Cader also noted that terrorist organizations had turned down Nguyen when he offered his services.
"He's not a skilled tactician," she said. "He was rejected by everybody but the government."
Judge Walter said he couldn't excuse Nguyen's conduct, pointing to his prior decision to join rebel fighters in Syria.
From December 2012 to April 2013, Nguyen had traveled to Syria where he fought with forces opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He boasted on Facebook about his first kill, the judge said.
Nguyen committed a quintessential terrorist act by offering to train al-Qaida fighters, Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Heinz contended.
"It doesn't take a lot of expertise to be able to kill people," Heinz said later in the proceedings.