AUGUSTA, Ga. — A Georgia man who wrote he was "ready for jihad" before buying a one-way ticket overseas to try joining the Islamic State group was sentenced to federal prison Tuesday after he sobbed to the judge, "I am an American."
Leon Nathan Davis III of Augusta was sentenced to 15 years, the maximum punishment allowed. A pale, bearded man with a Southern accent, the 38-year-old Davis pleaded guilty in May to seeking to help a known terrorist organization.
He was arrested at the Atlanta airport last October trying to board a flight to Turkey. Davis later said his plan was to be smuggled into Syria so he could join the Islamic State group as a recruiter and an English teacher.
During his sentencing Tuesday, Davis told the judge he had been "brainwashed" by writings and online propaganda of radical Muslims not long after he converted to Islam while imprisoned for cocaine trafficking a decade ago.
"I allowed myself to stray away from the truth of my religion, which is peace, love and humility," Davis said. "They brainwashed me into thinking that hatred and death were the way into heaven."
Despite his apologies and acknowledgement of wrongdoing, prosecutors insisted Davis was far from harmless.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlton Bourne showed the judge a photograph Davis posted online of himself holding a shotgun and surrounded by other weapons. Bourne said Davis added the caption: "ready for jihad."
About a year before buying his plane ticket, Bourne said, Davis posted online: "One of my greatest desires is to kill Zionists and bring down Israel and the United States of America."
Despite being a convicted felon, Davis owned six rifles, four handguns and two shotguns, according to prosecutors who originally charged him with illegal gun possession. That charge was dropped as part of a plea deal.
Davis posted "stupid things" on social media, said his defense attorney, Michael Loebl. But with no military training and a bad back, Davis posed "a low-level threat, if any," Loebl said.
Davis underwent a genuine religious conversion while in prison from 2005 to 2008, Loebl said, and became so dedicated that he taught himself to read and write Arabic. He said Davis' interest in radical Islam peaked when he left prison and was able to access writings, videos and other materials online.
Davis and his attorney insisted he never meant harm, particularly to Americans. Davis was born in Augusta and had a father who served in the military. At the time of his arrest, he was selling dietary supplements. He told the judge that because of his actions, his wife, an Iraqi citizen, has been barred from returning to the U.S.
"I love my country and I am an American," Davis said through loud sobs. "This is the best country in the world and it deserves better."
Authorities have charged several dozen people in the last year with trying to fight alongside the Islamic State and other militants or with lending them material support.
U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall said he chose the maximum punishment for Davis in hopes that it might deter others, though he also voiced concerns Davis might use prison to recruit more Islamic State supporters.
"In light of the clear evidence of their savagery and brutality, he chose to travel there and join them," Hall said. "This is a serious offense against our nation. We need to impose a serious sentence."