In 2016, federal law enforcement officials estimated that roughly 250 Americans had tried to join the terrorist group ISIS—most of whom never left the United States.


One of those who left the country to join ISIS was Wisconsin native Joshua Van Haften. This Beloit resident had a troubled past as a teenager in Rock County.


Troubled Criminal History


In 1998, at age 17, Van Haften was convicted in the county of substantial battery after he struck a man in the ear with a gun because the man began dating Van Haften’s ex-girlfriend. The blow permanently disfigured the romantic rival.


Two years later, at age 19, Van Haften was convicted of second degree sexual assault for having consensual sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girlfriend. A Rock County judge imposed a seven year sentence. The public record does not disclose how much time Van Haften spent in prison on the charge. What is known is that he was required to register as a sex offender following his release from prison—something that did not set well with him.


In 2006, at age 25, Van Haften graduated from Blackhawk Technical College in Beloit with a qualification in Fire Science—a precursor for becoming a firefighter. He never became a firefighter.


Registered Sex Offender Returned to US Several Times


Six years later, in October 2012, Van Haften left the United States and traveled to North Africa where he remained until January 2014 at which time he returned to this country


In July 2014, Van Haften again left the United States. This time he traveled to Egypt where he was observed taking photos of a military facility. The woman who observed him taking the photos confronted him about it. An argument ensued. The woman reported the incident to Egyptian authorities who contacted the U.S. Embassy about the matter. It was quickly discovered that Van Haften was a registered sex offender. Egyptian authorities kicked him out of their country.


Pledge of Allegiance to ISIS Leader


The following month after returning to the U.S. a Madison, Wisconsin woman reported to the local police that Van Haften had spoken to her 11-year-old son about joining ISIS. Several days later, in late August 2014, Van Haften once again left the U.S. and traveled to Istanbul, Turkey where he tried to join ISIS. He pledged allegiance online to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


Turkish immigration officials arrested him in October 2014. Six months later Van Haften was put on a plane for the United States where he was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International airport. He was subsequently indicted under 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a)(1) for attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group; namely, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).


Attempting to Provide Material Support


In October 2016, Van Haften pled guilty to the charges against him. Madison, Wisconsin U.S. District Court Judge James D. Petersen ordered a Presentence Investigation Report.


Judge Petersen conducted a comprehensive sentencing hearing on February 17, 2017. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines recommended a sentence between 292 and 365 months. The judge elected to impose a below-guidelines sentence of 10 years. U.S. Attorney John W. Vaudreuil of the Western District of Wisconsin was satisfied with the sentence.


“Today’s sentence reflects the gravity of the defendant’s plan to betray the United States and to join terrorists dedicated to the murder of innocent individuals, both in the U.S. and abroad,” Vaudreuil said.


Sentencing Enhancement for Terrorism


In imposing sentence, Judge Petersen utilized the terrorism enhancement provisions outlined in U.S. Sentencing Guideline § 3A1.4 which provides that when a defendant’s crime is “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”


Van Haften appealed the judge’s application of the terrorism enhancement provisions to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.


On February 1, 2018, the appeals court upheld Judge Petersen use of the terrorism enhancement provisions; and in so doing, the court outlined the behaviors and actions Van Haften exhibited mostly between 2006 and 2012 that shaped political radicalization:


  • He believed Britain’s Prince William is the Antichrist;
  • He believed Presidents Obama and Bush are “Kuffar disbelievers” and “defenders of the antichrist;
  • That America betrayed him and Muslims everywhere by not following Sharia law;
  • That he wanted to travel to Syria to fight against Americans
  • That the requirement that he register as a sex offender had “f…[ed] me for life from age 18;”
  • Because he was required to register as a sex offender, he wished “death to [Americans] and their little children;” and
  • That he wanted to join his “brothers for the war against American liars” and “kill me some American soldier boys;”


It was these proclamations and other behaviors that justified the use of the terrorism enhancement provisions, the appeals court held. The three-judge panel rejected Van Haften’s argument that his behaviors and actions were too irrational to be considered serious efforts to retaliate against America.


“Even if this is one way of looking at Van Haften’s behavior, however, it is by no means the only one. Van Haften undoubtedly holds many false beliefs—and the strength with which he has held those beliefs those beliefs has fluctuated over time—but his actions are not irrational. As the district court saw it, Van Haften’s decision to join ISIS’s war against America was ‘a rational act of retaliation,’ even if the factual predicates that motivated his decisions are false or absurd. Put another way, it is unimportant why Van Haften wanted to retaliate against the government. All that matters is that he did, in fact, commit a crime calculated to retaliate against the government.”


In the proverbial nutshell, psychotic delusions, incomprehensible gibberish, and/or a serious emotional disturbance or mental disease may not preclude the application of the terrorism enhancement provision when the defendant’s actions are part of either providing or trying to provide “material support” for a terrorist group.


The law does not always make sense but it remains the law.