CHICAGO (WLS) -- When Abdella Ahmad Tounisi was arrested for plotting to fly to Syria to join a terrorist group, he was a teenager - just 18.
On Thursday in Chicago federal court, Tounisi-now 23-thanked the government for saving his life by interrupting his terrorist plans.
Despite Tounisi's courtroom praise and apologies to his family, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan was merciless in sentencing the Aurora man and sentenced him to the statutory maximum -- 15 years in federal prison.
"Mr Tounisi, at your age you traded the opportunity to attend college for a terrorist training camp" said Judge Der-Yeghiayan. He continued, "you could have studied to find a cure for cancer."
The judge said that he would give "no free passes" when it comes to terrorism and that Tounisi could have chosen to become a hero in life but instead "chose to become a villain."
The teenager's road to perdition began in 2013 when he tried to join al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria, authorities said. That move came after he allegedly tried to help his friend, Adel Daoud, engineer a bombing here a year earlier.
According to the government, Daoud and Tounisi were friends and discussed terrorist plots - including wanting to stage a bomb attack on a night club that allowed the admission of teenagers, a now-defunct club the I-Team previously identified on Route 59 in Naperville.
Tounisi would later step away from the plot, but his fate had been sealed. He was grabbed by federal agents at O'Hare Airport in April 2013 on a trip to Syria.
"He was a lonely kid who sought a brotherhood and a life of value" said Tounisi's defense attorney Molly Armor. "His arrest, his detention at the MCC as an 18 year old kid, his face plastered all over the news, his mother in tears, his family shamed."
Another defense attorney, Patrick Blegen, said during Thursday's sentencing hearing that "not every terrorism is the same. He had no intention on returning to the United States because of belief he was going to be killed there [Syria.]"
Tounisi's lawyers had asked for a 7-year sentence.
Prosecutors noted the 15-year maximum in the case and described the case as a very, very serious offense.
But assistant U.S. attorney Barry Jonas also urged the judge to show mercy, explaining that Tounisi is "extremely remorseful, contrite." Prosecutor Jonas said that Tounisi had thought up a sentencing idea for himself: helping the community by talking with youth about not getting involved in terrorism.
"He could be fooling me" said Jonas. "He could be a great actor but I've been doing this long enough," saying he believed that he really wanted to help out.
Tounisi himself addressed the court before the judge imposed sentence. "First, I apologize to my family, especially my parents for all the pain and suffering that I put them though. I love all of you," he said.
"Secondly I apologize to the government for all the money and effort they spent on this case.... I say thank you. Thank you for saving my life."
Judge Der-Yeghiayan said that nothing can excuse the seriousness of the crime. "Such terrorism is a threat to the very existence of this great nation" he said and continued, saying that it was "an extremely serious crime, I would rank it at the top."
The judge said that if there was no statutory maximum sentence, he would have handed Tounisi an even longer incarceration.
After serving more than four years in the federal lock-up so far, Tounisi could be released in about 8 years. According to the sentence, he will then be on supervised release for the rest of his life.
Government attorneys declined comment after the hearing. Tounisi's attorneys and family members who were in court also would not speak about the sentencing after court.