Mohammad Hassan Khalid had earned a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University after just a few years in the United States, where his family was building a new life after leaving Pakistan.
As his parents and siblings worked to achieve the American dream, he retreated to his bedroom in a cramped apartment near Baltimore, where he came into contact online with Coleen LaRose, a Pennsylvania woman who called herself "Jihad Jane" in YouTube postings.
"The upheavals of my life were distorted into a force of hate so strong that it wrapped me in its claws," Khalid, now 21, told U.S. Judge Peterese Tucker. He said he had trouble speaking without being misunderstood.
Defense lawyers argued that Khalid was isolated and vulnerable because he was young, an immigrant and had Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder diagnosed since his arrest.
Federal prosecutors say Khalid met LaRose and other extremists online when he was 15 and used his "brilliance and eloquence" to help them translate documents and try to recruit westerners. That got the attention of the FBI, which visited Khalid repeatedly when he was 15 and 16.
"The FBI tried very sincerely to try to talk him out of his criminal conduct because of his youth. He wasn't interested," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennfier Arbittier Williams argued. "It was his persistent desire to be an online hero in the world of Jihad" that got him into trouble, she said.
Since his 2011 arrest, Khalid has given significant help to U.S. officials pursuing various al-Qaida offshoots, assistance that took years off his potential sentence of 15 years for providing material aid to terrorists.
LaRose got a 10-year term in January for agreeing to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who drew a cartoon that had offended Muslims, while another American woman, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, got eight years. Both had moved to Ireland to join an alleged terror cell.
"Colleen LaRose had as much chance of killing Lars Vilks as I did. No chance," Khalid's defense lawyer, Jeff Lindy, argued Thursday. He called the plot, which never led to an attack, "half-baked," and said Khalid's role fell far short of criminal conspiracy.
Khalid never left Maryland, but he opened a box LaRose had sent him that contained a passport and money. He sent some of the items to contacts in Ireland.
In court Thursday, Khalid said he hopes to rebuild his life with his family in the U.S., but knows he could be deported.
The gaunt young man hung his head and fought back tears Thursday as lawyers debated whether he was likely to be deported. That remains a question for immigration officials, not Tucker.
Khalid was arrested just before he turned 18, becoming the rare juvenile charged in a federal terrorism case. He could leave prison in about 14 months, with time off for good behavior. The judge did order mental health treatment in prison and three years of supervised release.
His parents and siblings stifled tears during the hearing. His older brother, who also earned a college scholarship, had tried to lure him away from the computer, to no avail, Khalid's lawyers said.