CHICAGO (AP) — It had the trappings of an actual extremist website: Photos of gun-toting fighters and a flowery exhortation to, "Come and join your lion brothers ... fighting under the true banner of Islam."
Except, it wasn't what it seemed.
It was a sham site constructed and controlled by the FBI with the aim of snaring terrorist wannabes in the virtual world before they could carry out real-world harm.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, was arrested last week on a terrorism charge stemming from the sting operation. He made a brief court appearance Tuesday in federal court in Chicago.
The American-born man from Aurora is accused of seeking to join al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is fighting the Syrian Bashar Assad regime in a bloody civil war.
Critics say the use of such sites raises questions about whether authorities are overreaching, wooing impressionable youth to contemplate crimes that otherwise wouldn't cross their minds.
"These sites can end up creating crimes," said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor-turned-defense attorney in Chicago. "Real terrorists don't need to go to a website for contacts. They have real contacts."
Federal investigators, he added, sometimes favor Internet stings because they are less costly and less labor intensive than traditional stakeouts.
"From your office computer, you can get millions of cases like this — sucking people in," he said. "But it diverts our attention from the real terrorists."
Mike Fagel, a Chicago-based security consultant, asks who, if given the chance, wouldn't have wanted to catch the Boston Marathon bombing suspects plotting online before they carried out their attack.
"These are valid tools," Fagel said about the sites. "As an emergency planner guy, if I can prevent something from happening, I don't have to worry about response and recover."
And given how terrorism is evolving, the Internet is a logical place to hunt for potential attackers, he added.
"We are seeing younger and younger assailants," he said. "And they operate on the Internet."
Authorities have also noted that it's not visiting such sites or fantasizing about acts of terrorism that's the crime. The crime is acting on those fantasies and taking specific steps to make it happen.
Tounisi's steps, authorities say, included trying to board a plane in Chicago.
He was arrested at O'Hare International Airport Friday as he prepared to start the first leg of a trip that he allegedly hoped would eventually hook him up with the al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria.
Tounisi is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to foreign terrorists. If convicted, he faces a maximum 15-year prison term. His attorney, Molly Armour, declined comment on Tuesday.
Despite his orange jail garb and shackled ankles, Tounisi looked younger than his 18 years at his court appearance, during which a judge delayed a decision on bond. Later, he cast a worried look at his parents sitting nearby on a spectators' bench.