Courts & Litigation Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Terrorism & Extremism

International Terrorism Prosecutions: Brooklyn Arrest

Nora Ellingsen
Monday, November 28, 2016, 1:01 PM

This week, federal district courts in Ohio and Illinois sentenced two men on material support charges. Meanwhile, another FBI counterterrorism suspect was arrested in Brooklyn, New York, and Dylann Roof, the alleged Charleston shooter, was found competent to stand trial.

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This week, federal district courts in Ohio and Illinois sentenced two men on material support charges. Meanwhile, another FBI counterterrorism suspect was arrested in Brooklyn, New York, and Dylann Roof, the alleged Charleston shooter, was found competent to stand trial.

On Monday, November 21st, a complaint charging Mohamed Rafik Naji with attempting to provide material support to ISIL was unsealed in federal district court in the Eastern District of New York, according to the Justice Department’s press release. Earlier that morning, FBI agents arrested the 37 year-old in his Brooklyn home, bringing an end to a multi-year investigation that began with the subject’s support for ISIL on Facebook in 2014. Over the next two years, the government alleges, the subject traveled to Yemen to fight with ISIL, before returning to the United States and considering conducting an attack in his home city.

Naji flew to Turkey in March 2015, and traveled onward to Yemen several days later, according to the government. Emailing his wife back in the United States, Naji complained that he was having difficulty reaching ISIL-controlled territory. Several weeks into his stay, he whined that he had tried five times to join ISIL and asked his wife to send him money for a plane ticket home. He was glad, he said, that she hadn’t joined him as planned. But things began to look up for Naji shortly thereafter, and on April 21, he sent his wife an email with the subject line “First day on the job.” Attached to the email was a video file in which gunshots are audible. According to the complaint, ISIL was fighting in Yemen at this time.

Beginning in August 2015, Naji began chatting on Facebook with an FBI source. Believing that the source wanted to join ISIL, Naji told him to travel to Hadhramaut, a region in the southern portion of Yemen, and told that source, “I belong to ISIL only.”

Then, for reasons not specified in the complaint, Naji left Yemen and returned to New York City on September 12, 2015, where he asked the source to meet him in person—an unusual transition from online to in-person contact. During their meetings, some of which were recorded, Naji allegedly regaled the source with stories of his time overseas and provided him with some lessons learned: don’t wear boots or pack tactical clothing while en route, and travel to Sinai, Libya, Yemen, or Somalia instead of Turkey to avoid law enforcement attention.

Naji also indicated that he had originally planned to travel with his wife since a married couple would be less suspicious than a single man traveling alone. He wasn’t the first to have this idea, Jaelyn Delshaun Young and Muhammad Oda Dakhlalla, the aspiring Mississippian travelers, got married before their attempt to join ISIL and tried to convince authorities that they were newlyweds traveling to Greece for their honeymoon. Unlike that couple, Naji’s wife is not named in the complaint, and it’s unclear whether she cooperated with the FBI. There’s no indication that she has been charged—despite wiring almost $5,500 to Naji while in Yemen—so she has yet to join the exclusive club of female counterterrorism subjects like Muna Osman Jama and Hinda Osman Dhirane.

Aside from reminiscing about his past travel, Naji also allegedly told the source that he felt a call from ISIL to commit an attack in Times Square similar to the 2016 Bastille Day attack in Nice, France. Prosecutors did not suggest that Naji received a directive from a specific ISIL member, but instead was responding to a larger call—the Autumn 2016 issue of Inspire magazine, for example, encouraged lone wolves to commit acts of violent jihad, “using a truck as done by the Lone Mujahid in the Nice operation.”

Although unsuccessful in his attempt to conduct an attack within the United States, Naji is one of very few subjects the FBI has identified as having travelled overseas to fight before returning home. A handful of men, like Joshua Van Haften, left the country to join ISIL and returned after they were unsuccessful in their attempts to get into Syria—never having the opportunity to actually fight and train with ISIL. However, while the FBI was arresting Naji, across the country in the Northern District of Illinois, a subject who never planned to return to the United States was being sentenced.

Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 21, was sentenced to 40 months for attempting to provide material support to ISIL According to the criminal complaint and the plea agreement, Khan was 19 years old when he was arrested attempting to flee the country from O’Hare airport with his two minor siblings, neither of whom were subsequently arrested or charged. During a search of his parents’ home, FBI agents found a letter Khan had left for his parents, telling them that he had left to join ISIL in Syria and asking them not to tell the authorities, but to join him in the Islamic State instead. After his arrest, and after waiving Miranda, Khan told investigators that one of his online contacts had provided him with the name of a person Khan was supposed to contact once he arrived in Istanbul. Once in Istanbul, this person would help Khan join ISIL, where he expected to work in public service, humanitarian work, police work, or in a combat role. He would remain there permanently, he told the FBI, as he knew he would be arrested if he returned.

Khan’s story is sadly, unremarkable: a young man attempts to travel to Syria to fight with ISIL and is arrested by the FBI at the airport before he is able to do so. However, his sentencing was unique and perhaps reflective of new trends towards rehabilitation that I briefly mentioned last week.

Khan was sentenced to 40 months for attempting to provide material support to ISIL—a charge that carries, and is regularly sentenced at, a maximum of 15 years. In its sentencing memo, the government asked for only 60 months. Prosecutors noted that Khan had fully cooperated with the government, providing information about two ISIL related individuals—one of whom is the subject of an ongoing investigation, the other of whom recently died. The government also recognized the blurry lines inherent in the conflict in Syria and noted that the genesis of Khan’s interest in the conflict was the plight of the Syrian people under the Assad regime.

The defense asked for 40 months. Because Khan has been incarcerated since his arrest in October 2014, the defense argued that a sentence of 40 months would allow Khan to enroll in college in the fall of 2017 and develop some much needed critical thinking skills.

However, despite a lighter the sentence, the judge also imposed 20 years of intensive supervised release with special terms. Most notably, Khan must attend violent extremism counseling and comply with the requirements of a computer monitoring program, which includes the installation of computer-monitoring software on all devices in Khan’s possession and control that are capable of accessing the Internet.

Earlier this week, Khan was also mentioned in a New York Times article, covering the FBI’s efforts to disrupt key ISIL recruiters on social media. Focusing on the now deceased Junaid Hussain, the article mentioned several subjects who were recruited by the ISIL leader, including Munir Abdulkader—a 22 year old who was sentenced in the Southern District of Ohio last week.

Abdulkader was sentenced to 20 years in prison and lifetime supervised release after pleading guilty to attempting to kill officers and U.S. government employees, conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence in March 2016.

According to the Justice Department’s press release, Abdulkader plotted to murder a military base employee and attack a police station in the name of ISIL and at the behest of Junaid Hussain. Although often not named in complaints, Hussain has influenced many recent arrestees, creating a “nightmare” for the FBI. Ardit Ferizi passed Junaid Hussain a list of United States military personnel that Hussain turned into a “kill list”—inspiring individuals like Nelash Mohamed Das to conduct attacks within the United States, using the list to find potential targets. Unlike many of his counterparts, Hussain actually communicated directly and regularly with Abdulkader.

Beginning in January 2015, Abdulkader began meeting with an FBI source, confiding in the source that he wanted to travel to Syria to join ISIL. However, following a string of counterterrorism arrests by the FBI in early 2015, Hussain advised Abdulkader that travel was too risky, and that in lieu of joining ISIL in Syria, Abdulkader should conduct a violent attack in the United States. Hussain first dictated that the attack should target military personnel, but later decided on a police station due to the heightened security at military bases, according to the government’s sentencing memo.

The two men chatted regularly about the operational plan, finally deciding that Abdulkader would raid a soldier’s home, behead him, record it, and send the recording to Hussain. Next, Abdulkader would go to the police station, throw pipe bombs, engage police officers with firearms and fight to the death. Hussain provided Abdulkader with the name of a soldier and his wife. Abdulkader prepared for the attack by going to a shooting range, buying an AK-47 assault rifle, and conducting surveillance of a police station.

Meanwhile, on the domestic terrorism front, a judge in federal district court in the District of South Carolina, has ordered that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist shooter who killed nine African Americans during a prayer service in a Charleston church in 2015, is competent to stand trial. Jury selection will resume on Monday, November 28th, with the conducting of individual voir dire.

Roof faces a 33-count federal indictment, including several counts of hate crimes; he potentially faces the death penalty.

According to the Charleston Post Courier, Roof also faces the death penalty in state court where he is charged with nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder and a firearms charge. Although jury selection in the federal case may last into the new year, the state trial is scheduled to begin in mid-January.

Nora Ellingsen is a third-year student at Harvard Law School. Prior to graduate school, she spent five years working for the FBI's Counterterrorism Division. She graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Psychology and Political Science.

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