Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Terrorism & Extremism

International Terrorism Prosecutions: New York Travelers

Nora Ellingsen
Tuesday, January 31, 2017, 9:58 AM

On January 19th, in federal district court in New York, Akhror Saidakhmetov, a 21-year-old citizen of Kazakhstan, pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to ISIL, according to the Justice Department’s press release.

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On January 19th, in federal district court in New York, Akhror Saidakhmetov, a 21-year-old citizen of Kazakhstan, pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to ISIL, according to the Justice Department’s press release.

Saidakhmetov and his co-conspirator, Abdurasul Juraboev, were both arrested in February 2015, after Saidakhmetov attempted to board a flight for Turkey at JFK Airport in New York. Juraboev pleaded guilty to similar charges in August 2016 and is currently awaiting sentencing.

If the complaint is any indication, the duo practiced unimaginably poor tradecraft. The case began in August 2014 when the FBI discovered that a Brooklyn-based individual was posting on Hilogatnews, an Uzbek-language, pro-ISIL website. That individual, later determined to be Juraboev, pledged his allegiance to ISIL and eagerly posted about his willingness to commit an act of martyrdom on behalf of ISIL, such as killing President Obama.

Not surprisingly, a few days later the FBI knocked on Juraboev’s door. But amazingly enough, during his interview with the FBI agents, Juraboev admitted not only to supporting ISIL and their ideology but also to wanting to harm President Obama. In a second interview with the FBI, after first giving consent for the Bureau to search his phone, Juraboev said that he was trying to contact ISIL and that he would kill President Obama if anyone from the group ordered him to do so. Taking it one step further, Juraboev also provided the interviewing agents with a written statement detailing his desire to conduct an attack in the United States on behalf of ISIL.

Although Juraboev's unusual honesty may have insulated him from any false statement charges, Juraboev also managed to throw his friend under the bus: he disclosed to the FBI that his friend, Saidakhmetov, also wanted to wage jihad by fighting in Syria with ISIL or conducting an attack in the United States.

The FBI opened a case on Saidakhmetov, who was plotting to leave the United States—although he was having difficulties getting his mother to hand over his passport. Not to be deterred, the teenager told an FBI source that if he was unable to leave the country he would get an AK-47 and “shoot all the police,” before continuing his attack at FBI headquarters. If he were able to board a plane he discussed the possibility of hijacking the plane and diverting it to the Islamic State in order to provide ISIL with an aircraft. (Presumably, he had intended to land it undamaged.)

A few weeks earlier, another young man was sentenced on material support charges in New York after trying to leave the country. 22-year-old Justin Kaliebe was arrested at JFK in January 2013, while attempting to board a flight to Muscat, Oman, according to the Justice Department’s press release. Unlike Saidakhmetov, Kaliebe was traveling to join Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

According to the complaint, Kaliebe pledged his allegiance to AQAP and was planning on travelling onwards from Oman to Yemen, where he hoped to join the terrorist group and commit violent jihad on behalf of its members.

Although his sentence of 13 years in prison is by no means light, the special conditions of his supervisory release are reminiscent of recent sentencing techniques that have veered toward rehabilitation. The Justice Department’s press release indicates that these conditions include computer monitoring, a prohibition on contact with jihadists, search conditions, mental health treatment, and a curfew, among others—all provisions similar to those received by Abdullahi Yusuf, a Minneapolis teenager who pled guilty to a conspiracy charge in February 2015. Yusuf received lenient conditions in addition to time served after he convinced the sentencing judge that he had attained “a very advanced state of disengagement and critical reflection.” According to a Wired profile of the defendant, Yusuf is now participating in Minnesota’s new deradicalization program. Pioneered by Daniel Koehler, whose initial fascination with deradicalization focused on neo-Nazis, the program, which is still in its infancy, has already attracted the attention of the Justice Department and the FBI.

Finally, in Upstate New York, Emanuel L. Lutchman, who pleaded guilty in August to conspiring to provide material support to ISIL, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on January 26th. As I wrote about at the time of the plea agreement, Lutchman planned to target a bar or club on New Years Eve, where he aimed to kidnap and kill several people.

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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