A Los Angeles CVS pharmacist who tried to aid al-Qaeda and Taliban mujahedeen operations against American soldiers in Afghanistan, only to be caught by the FBI because of sloppy secret-agent moves, has a message for U.S. District Court Judge Josephine Staton Tucker: “Please forgive me for my actions.”
Tucker is scheduled next week at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse to punish Orange County resident Oytun Ayse Mihalik, 38, a Turkey native who used a fake, Americanized name, Cindy Palmer, in her efforts to supply more than $4,000 to Islamic terrorists in 2010 and 2011. The U.S. government is seeking a 12-year prison trip for Mihalik. She is hoping for a whopping 10-year reduction. If she wins her argument, she could be set free in about six months, as she has been in the custody of U.S. marshals for 18 months.
From the perspective of her defense lawyers, Mihalik deserves a significant downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines. They say that except for a brief, “tumultuous period,” she has led “an extremely law-abiding life” and was “not singularly motivated” to aid terrorists through “a passionate radical ideology,” according to court records. They describe her as nonviolent, well-educated and a onetime horseback-riding devotee. Her pro-al-Qaeda moves resulted from “a confused and conflicted mental state” caused by her troubled marriage, her brother's pilgrimage to Pakistan, her 69-year-old mother's chronic cough and a miscarriage. They also claim their client was “easy prey” for al-Qaeda operatives' “dramatic and emotional use” of the Koran to manipulate her mindset.
“Ms. Mihalik never attended any terrorist-training camp,” Van Nuys-based criminal defense lawyer Alan Eisner told the judge last year. “Ms. Mihalik was never privy to any specific terrorism plot. Ms. Mihalik never offered any plan or advice for any terrorist attack.”
FBI agents and federal prosecutors hold a more sinister view of the defendant, who has been residing legally in the U.S. because of a marriage to an American. After returning from a 2010 trip to Turkey, she voiced anti-American sentiments to her husband, who was so frightened he secretly contacted Homeland Security officials. He reported that she told him, “If I have to kill people for Allah, I will,” and that she called taking a citizenship oath to the U.S. “a blasphemy.”
Mihalik was unaware that on-the-ball U.S. agents had copied her laptop files when she'd landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). They found that she had saved “The Al Qaeda Manual” as a “favorite” Internet Explorer tab and had viewed information pertaining to the book The Mind of the Terrorist. After activating the computer's online “privacy” mode, she searched for “true jihad” and “Jihad in Afghanistan.” Agents also determined that she studied the pro-al-Qaeda manual repeatedly during her flight to LAX. Rather than reading terrorist manuals for training purposes, Mihalik claims she viewed the information only in an effort to understand her brother's commitment to radical Islam.
But, according to a Feb. 8 brief filed by Assistant United States Attorney Judith A. Heinz, Mihalik—a Cypress resident who worked at a Norwalk CVS pharmacy for more than $59 per hour and got her education thanks to sponsorship from Walgreens—knowingly tried to avoid detection by using a fake name to make three separate payments to “Allah's Soldiers” in Pakistan via Western Union at a Ralphs grocery store: $750 on Dec. 21, 2010; $600 on Dec. 29, 2010; and $700 on Jan. 11, 2011. Though the total amount of the wired funds doesn't seem monumental, Heinz describes the $2,050 as enough to fund a single al-Qaeda operation against U.S. soldiers. The government has redacted huge portions of the files in the case by citing protection of national security methods, but it seems likely given the contents of captured emails—communications that cryptically mention a car and contain the words “infidels,” “jihad” and “mujadeen”—that the money may have been intended for a car bomb attack.
(An FBI report also claims that Mihalik, who obtained a master's degree in pharmaceutical marketing and health-care administration from Long Island University in 2002, convinced her father in Turkey to make an April 2011 payment of $2,000 to al-Qaeda.)
In August 2011, Mihalik tried to leave the U.S. at LAX with a one-way ticket to Istanbul—the day after FBI agents questioned her about the transactions. Following her airport arrest, she confessed during an Irvine interrogation to harboring anti-American feelings. “She stated repeatedly and with great conviction that she sent the money to [al-Qaeda operative] Ebu Yasir, knowing that he intended to use it for mujahedin operations against United States military forces in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region,” wrote Heinz. “[She believed that] sending money to [the terrorist] was right because it would keep her in Allah's good graces.”
In fact, an FBI report claims Mihalik told agents “sending the money made her feel good inside” and expressed contempt that they'd been able to electronically trace her moves.
Defense lawyers initially fought the charges and mocked the government's use of secret evidence in the case. “The government has not proffered any evidence that [our client's] conduct involved any intelligence that, if revealed, would be a threat to the United States,” they argued, calling her ties to al-Qaeda “extremely limited.” Last August, however, she dropped the fight and signed a guilty plea.
In February, Mihalik told Judge Tucker that she was “ashamed” of her conduct and viewed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., as “the heinous act of evil-minded” people.
“I am deeply sorry,” Mihalik wrote to Tucker. “I love the United States of America and consider it my home country since this country allowed me to achieve all my career and personal goals, widened my perspective in life to appreciate freedom, equality and liberty. I have admiration of the system [in which] people from all over the world with different backgrounds and traditions live in peace and harmony. I realize my American dream has been ruined. . . . Looking back at my conduct and recounting the events, I can clearly see how disturbed I was emotionally.”
In their quest for leniency, Mihalik's lawyers assert that she is “no risk” to the U.S. now and noted that other terrorism-related criminals have won punishment below federal guidelines, including Osama bin Laden's personal assistant, a Holy Land Foundation activist, a funder of Hamas and two Earth Liberation Front members.
Heinz isn't swayed, calling the defendant's request for a relatively light punishment “not justified.” I would explain her position fully if I could. However, she redacted nearly 100 lines from her sentencing memorandum.
Whatever prison sentence Tucker renders on March 29, one portion of the punishment is already known: When Mihalik eventually emerges from her prison stint, she'll be deported back to Turkey. According to her plea deal, she will be allowed to return to the U.S. under one condition: She obtains written permission from high-ranking, national-security officials.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.