Ex-DePaul student gets 7½ years in federal prison for writing computer code to help ISIS terrorist group

A former DePaul University student was sentenced Thursday to 7 ½ years in federal prison for using his developing computer skills to help the Islamic State terrorist group spread violent propaganda on social media.

Lawyers for Thomas Osadzinski, 23, painted him as a naive, socially awkward teenager who was struggling with mental health issues when he “got sucked in” by the radical ideologies in the dark corners of the internet.

In sentencing Osadzinski, however, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said that there was a wide gulf between typical youthful indirection or poor judgment and Osadzinski’s conduct, which included pledging fealty to a “hideous group” such as ISIS and “promoting and encouraging” its violent message around the globe.

“I think you understand now how serious this is,” said Gettleman. “You have shown remorse. Is it genuine? I hope so.”

Osadzinski, who was born and raised in Northbrook, was convicted by a jury last year of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 15 years in prison, while the defense requested 5 years behind bars.

Before he was sentenced, Osadzinski, who has been in custody since his arrest almost three years ago to the day, stood in court wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and black eyeglasses and denounced the Islamic State, saying he was in a “dark place” at the time and “got lost online.”

“I was searching for answers and I thought I found them, but they were all lies,” Osadzinski said. “And if it’s not clear already, I completely reject ISIS.”

Osadzinski’s voice broke with emotion as he apologized to his parents sitting in the courtroom gallery, saying he was “deeply ashamed and saddened” by how he’d messed up his once-promising future.

By now, Osadzinski said, he should have graduated from college. Instead, he watched from a window at the Metropolitan Correctional Center as his graduating class stood on the “El” platform at the Harold Washington Library across from the jail, holding blue and red balloons — the colors of DePaul.

“That is a life that I’ve ruined with my choices and my decisions,” Osadzinski said, as his mother broke into sobs. “I failed everyone, and I failed myself.”

With credit for good behavior and time already served, Osadzinski will likely be 28 when he’s released from prison. Gettleman also imposed a 10-year term of supervised release, allowing authorities to monitor his contacts and social media activities.

Osadzinski’s two-week trial was the latest in a string of ISIS-related cases brought in U.S. District Court in Chicago that have continued well after the collapse of the group’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2019.

Shortly before Osadzinski was arrested, two friends from far north suburban Zion were convicted by a federal jury of attempting to aid the terrorist group by providing cellphones to an undercover FBI agent to be used as detonators for bombs. Joseph Jones was sentenced to 12 years in prison, while his co-defendant, Edward Schimenti, received 13½ years behind bars.

Prosecutors said that when Osadzinski’s North Side apartment was searched after his arrest in November 2019, they found a copy of the charges against Jones and Schimenti.

Osadzinski’s case was unique because it centered on a fairly rudimentary computer code he wrote, rather than the planning of any actual attack or attempt to send equipment overseas.

Osadzinski’s lawyers have downplayed his sophistication and said he never had any serious intent to support terrorism. In fact, attorney Steven Greenberg said Thursday, when he was asked by a purported ISIS supporter to translate and disseminate bomb-making instructions, Osadzinski refused.

“He certainly knew not to do these other things,” Greenberg said.

But prosecutors said his statements both online and in undercover recordings showed he was excited to have created a new and potentially powerful tool for ISIS, which relies heavily on social media to spread propaganda.

In her closing argument to jurors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melody Wells said Osadzinski’s computer program could rapidly download, replicate and spread violent ISIS videos faster than social media platforms could delete them, significantly improving the terrorist organization’s messaging capabilities.

“He came up with something valuable, and he knew it,” Wells said. “He was doing something that mattered.”

In one 2019 conversation highlighted by prosecutors, Osadzinski told someone he thought was an ISIS propaganda chief that he was “the only person in the world doing this right now.”

When asked what he planned to do with the script he’d written, Osadzinski allegedly replied, “Spread it everywhere ... now I’m making as much jihad as possible.”

But Osadzinski’s attorneys painted him as desperately naive, peppering his online chats with emojis, using stencils and fabric to make his own ISIS flag, even printing out jihad posters at the campus library.

A recent convert to Islam, Osadzinski spoke only rudimentary Arabic and fell victim to overzealous agents who pretended to be ISIS sympathizers, befriended him, and gave him a mission that in the end went nowhere, according to attorney Joshua Herman.

Herman also called attention in his closing argument to FBI reports where undercover operatives described Osadzinski as an ISIS “fan boy” — a term Herman said was akin to “someone writing letters to Justin Bieber.”

“All this talk about things he wants to do for ISIS,” Herman said in a mocking tone. “It’s like he’s the Elon Musk of the Caliphate.”

The 38-page criminal complaint filed in 2019 alleged Osadzinski converted to Islam while a teen, expressing his devotion to the Islamic State in online forums that included undercover FBI employees he believed were terrorist sympathizers.

Osadzinski started to design a process that uses a computer script to make ISIS propaganda more conveniently accessed and disseminated by users on social media, according to the complaint.

To short-circuit attempts by a particular social media platform to remove offensive content, Osadzinski’s computer process was designed to automatically copy and preserve ISIS media postings in an organized format, allowing users to continue to conveniently access and disseminate the content, the charges alleged.

“It can run on any computer and will be very lightweight, fast and secure,” Osadzinski allegedly wrote to one undercover federal employee.

Osadzinski eventually shared his script and instructions for how to use it with individuals he believed to be ISIS supporters and members of pro-ISIS media organizations, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, the FBI had been monitoring Osadzinski’s online activities for nearly two years. He was aware he was being watched because an agent attempted to interview him in March 2018, but he refused to talk, according to prosecutors. Instead, agents interviewed his parents.

In court Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas said that law enforcement contact “should have scared him straight,” but instead he grew more radical, stalking the FBI case agent and sending her information to others online. He also had a stick-figure drawing in his apartment depicting him killing the agent, Jonas said.

On the day of his arrest, Osadzinski fought back with such force “it took four FBI agents to take him down,” Jonas said, adding, “He kicked one of them clear across the room.”

When Gettleman later remarked that wasn’t something to be proud of, Osadzinski interjected.

“I’m not,” he said.