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

International Terrorism Prosecutions: Domestic Terrorists Target Muslims

Nora Ellingsen
Tuesday, October 18, 2016, 10:14 AM

ISIL supporters in Wisconsin try to flee to Mexico, while Kansas militia members target Muslims, and Ahmad Rahami, the Chelsea bomber, pleads not guilty in New Jersey state court.

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According to a Justice Department press release, two Milwaukeeans were charged with material support in federal district court in the District of Minnesota on Friday. Jason Michael Ludke, 35, was charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIL, while Yosvany Padilla-Conde, 30, was charged with aiding and abetting Ludke’s attempt to provide material support to ISIL.

Notably, the evidence included in the complaint only dates back to last month, September 2016, when Ludke “friended” an online FBI undercover employee on an unnamed social media platform. Over the course of eight days—a light speed investigation, assuming the complaint is representative of the entire case—Ludke told the undercover employee that he was ready to join ISIL and pledged allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Unlike many FBI subjects, including Nicholas Young and Nicholas Teausant, who meet face-to-face with FBI undercover agents for up to a year, Ludke’s interactions with the undercover took place exclusively online and over the phone.

Ludke informed the FBI undercover employee that he wanted to travel to Yemen, Syria or Iraq, and would leave the country via Mexico, due to his criminal record. Both his choice of destination and route are unusual. Yemen has fallen out of vogue for terrorists looking to travel. Minh Quang Pham was recently sentenced after travelling to Yemen, but his trip to train with AQAP occurred in 2010, prior to the rise of ISIL. And California-based Muhanad Badawi and Nader Elhuzayel, who were sentenced last week, briefly considered travelling to Yemen before landing on Syria instead.

Similarly, Mexico hasn’t been a popular route. Most FBI subjects attempting to travel overseas are arrested at their local airports, with the occasional border crossing into Canada. However, Ludke is not entirely alone in choosing Mexico; several of the defendants in the Minnesota case intended to leave the U.S. by crossing the border from California into Mexico and Bilal Abood successfully crossed from Texas into Mexico en route to Syria in 2013.

Several days later, Ludke told the FBI undercover that his “brother,” later identified as Padilla-Conde, would travel with him and sent the undercover a video of Padilla-Conde pledging his allegiance to al-Baghdadi, next to an ISIL flag.

On October 5th, just a little over a week after his initial contact with the FBI, Ludke told the undercover that he was currently in Texas, on his way to Mexico. Later that day, law enforcement located and arrested both men near San Angelo, Texas, only a couple of hours from the border. Interestingly, neither of the men were arrested on terrorism or even federal charges. Ludke was arrested on an outstanding warrant from Milwaukee and Padilla-Conde was held on immigration charges. The charges may indicate that the FBI was attempting to disrupt the threat as soon as possible and lacked the time to seek approval of a counterterrorism prosecution memo.

Both subjects were interviewed and waived their rights. Ludke told the interviewing FBI agents that the men left Milwaukee because they were unable to pay their rent and were travelling to Yemen to study Arabic. Padilla-Conde gave up his friend, telling the FBI that Ludke actually planned to travel to Iraq or Yemen for jihad and had discussed joining ISIL.

If convicted, both men face up to 20 years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Chelsea bomber Ahmad Rahami appeared in state court via video from his hospital bed on Thursday, October 13th. He pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan and New Jersey have also charged Rahami (although his state public defender pointed out in court that it’s actually “Rahimi.”) No date has been set for appearances in either of the federal cases.

The biggest terrorism headlines of the week come, somewhat surprisingly, from the District of Kansas. There, Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright, and Patrick Eugene Stein were charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. The three men, all in their late forties, planned to detonate bombs at an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas where Somali immigrants live and worship, according to the Justice Department’s press release.

Unlike other terrorism cases usually covered in this series, Allen, Wright, and Stein are classified by the FBI as domestic terrorism, and not international terrorism, subjects—meaning that none of the men have a nexus to a foreign power or entity. Here, the men were members of a US-based sovereign citizen, anti-government, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant militia group called “the Crusaders,” who sought to conduct an attack in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting, according to the complaint.

Despite these differences in ideology and classification, however, there are parallels between this group and international terrorism suspects typically discussed here. First, the Kansas domestic terrorists are charged with the same weapons of mass destruction violation as Ahmad Rahami.

Second, like international terrorism suspects, Allen, Wright and Stein were cautious of government surveillance and discussed their plans using encrypted mobile messaging. And the FBI used similar investigative techniques here as in international terrorism contexts, relying heavily on consensual recordings conducted by a source, as well as introducing an FBI undercover employee.

The Kansas subjects were particularly graphic in discussing their plot and underlying hatreds. Believing that Muslims, especially individuals of Somali descent, represent a threat to American society, the subjects referred to Somalis as “cockroaches,” and discussed killing their targets with bows “dipped in pig’s blood” (a reference to a debunked myth about US General John Pershing). They also planned to hang signs around hundreds of people’s neck saying, “I support illegal immigration, I go against the Constitution on a daily basis, I do not have any care for my fellow citizens in the state or in the town that I represent,” before “blow[ing off] the top of their head[s].” Stein went to far as to declare that they would leave no one alive after their attack, including children as young as one-year-old. And unlike even the most extreme targets of international terror investigations, the complaint also alleges they condoned rape as a method of attack.

The three men were also far more experienced than the run-of-the-mill international terrorism subject when it came to making explosives. While many international terrorism subjects may conduct amateur research online about explosives, in practice most, like Akram Musleh, ultimately show support for ISIL by travelling overseas or planning a shooting attack. Rahimi in Chelsea is, of course, the recent exception.

Allen, on the other hand, told the FBI source he already had the materials to make explosives, while Stein said he could provide ammonium nitrate as well. When Allen’s girlfriend called the police on October 11th after he allegedly battered her during an argument, her account supported a belief the men were not exaggerating. She described Allen producing a white powdery substance—which law enforcement later identified as the homemade explosive Hexamethylene Triperoxide Diamine (HMTD)—and showed police a room in the house containing a large amount of ammunition, and components and tools for use in the manufacture of ammunition and firearms. Once the men were taken into custody, law enforcement seized nearly a metric ton of ammunition from Allen’s residence.

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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