Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Terrorism & Extremism

International Terrorism Prosecutions: Spring and Summer Wrap-Up

Nora Ellingsen
Monday, September 4, 2017, 10:00 AM

Since President Trump fired Jim Comey as FBI director, the FBI has received quite a bit of attention. More than 19.5 million people tuned in to watch former director Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and shortly thereafter, Etsy shops began to stock “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” apparel. But while the bureau grabs people’s attention, arrests of international terrorism subjects generally don’t make headlines.

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Since President Trump fired Jim Comey as FBI director, the FBI has received quite a bit of attention. More than 19.5 million people tuned in to watch former director Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and shortly thereafter, Etsy shops began to stock “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” apparel. But while the bureau grabs people’s attention, arrests of international terrorism subjects generally don’t make headlines.

In the past five months, much of the action has had to do with Islamic State. Since late March, the FBI has arrested and charged eight men with attempting or conspiring to provide material support to ISIL. Additional ISIL supporters have pleaded guilty or been sentenced, and one was convicted at trial.

But other terrorist groups also faced setbacks. In June, FBI agents arrested Hezbollah operatives planning attacks within U.S. borders. The Justice Department also brought the first foreigner to the U.S. to face terrorism charges since the Trump presidency began.

So while the rest of us drink our morning coffee from our #comeyshomies mugs, here’s a summary of what career counterterrorism employees at the FBI and Justice Department have been up to over the past five months.

Islamic State

The vast majority of terrorism subjects that the Justice Department has prosecuted the past five months were charged due to their support for ISIL. The GW Program on Extremism estimates that 131 individuals have been charged in the U.S. with offenses related to the group.

Over the past five months alone, the FBI arrested and charged eight men with material support to terrorism.

Most recently, on Aug. 29, Parveg Ahmed, a 22-year-old from Queens, was arrested after he was deported from Saudi Arabia. According to the Justice Department, Ahmed attempted to travel from Saudi Arabia to ISIL-controlled territory in Syria. Unfortunately for Ahmed, Saudi authorities deported him back to the U.S., where he was arrested by the FBI at JFK Airport.

In Hawaii, the FBI arrested Ikaika Erik Kang, a 34-year-old Army sergeant first class stationed on Oahu. Kang deployed with the Army to Iraq and Afghanistan but began to raise eyebrows in 2011 when he started to vocalize support for ISIL, according to the government. After attempting to counsel Kang, the Army notified the FBI. According to the complaint, an FBI undercover operation ensued, and Kang provided classified military documents to an undercover agent he believed was working for ISIL. He also offered to run a “beginners course” for ISIL recruits—teaching a mixture of jiu-jitsu, judo, kickboxing, mixed martial arts and rifle marksmanship. On July 8, the FBI arrested Kang, who admitted to pledging allegiance to ISIL and attempting to supply the terrorism group with a drone, after waiving his Miranda rights. Kang is the first ISIL supporter to be arrested in Hawaii.

Back on the mainland, multiple subjects were arrested after attempting to provide material support—in the form of themselves, as “personnel” under 18 U.S. Code §§ 2339A & B—to ISIL. In New York, Saddam Mohamed Raishani, was arrested at JFK Airport as he attempted to fly to Syria to join the terrorist group. According to the complaint filed in the Southern District of New York, Raishani, a 30-year-old from the Bronx, told an undercover New York Police Department officer that he had paid off his credit card debt and quit his job in preparation for travel. Two months earlier in the Midwest, Laith Waleed Alebbini, a 26-year-old man from Dayton, Ohio, was arrested at Cincinnati/Kentucky International Airport. Although information related to the case is sparse, a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Ohio returned an indictment in May charging Alebbini with attempting to provide material support to ISIL.

Zakaryia Abdin of Ladson was also arrested at an airport—this time in Charleston, S.C.—while boarding a flight to Amman, Jordan. The 18-year-old planned to travel on to the Sinai Province in Egypt, where he intended to join ISIL, according to the complaint. Abdin’s case is noteworthy due to the subject’s prior interactions with law enforcement. According to the Charlotte Observer, Abdin was arrested as a teenager by police in York, S.C., after he bought two guns and claimed that he wanted to join ISIL in Syria. The York police arrested Abdin in February 2015 on a gun possession charge. No federal charges were filed, and he was paroled 14 months later. According to the government, after his release, Abdin met with FBI agents who walked him through the various statutory definitions of terrorism. At the time, Abdin maintained that he had completely disassociated himself with his prior extremist ideology. A later FBI investigation uncovered his plans to support ISIL.

Other subjects never planned to travel themselves but were arrested after they facilitated the travel of others to join ISIL. Two men from Illinois, Joseph D. Jones and Edward Schimenti, were arrested in April after helping to facilitate the travel of an FBI source overseas to join ISIL. According to the complaint, both men gave the source cellphones that they believed would be used to detonate explosive devices in ISIL attacks overseas, and drove the source to O’Hare Airport. According to the complaint, both men were also vocal about their support of the terrorist group on social media and posed for pictures with the ISIL flag in a public park in suburban Zion, Ill.

Finally, one subject was actively building a bomb for use in the U.S. when he appeared on law enforcement’s radar. Like Abdin, Gregory Lepsky, a 20-year-old from New Jersey, was referred to the FBI by local law enforcement. Earlier this year, New Jersey law enforcement got a call from a relative of Lepsky’s claiming that Lepsky had stabbed his family dog. Law enforcement responded, and Lepsky stated—unprompted by law enforcement, according to the complaint—that he had joined ISIL, that he was going to kill his mother and that he had plane tickets to Turkey. Later, while being treated at a local hospital, Lepsky told medical personnel that he was working for ISIL, according to the complaint. He also, according to the government, divulged his plan to plant a pressure-cooker bomb in New York City. Law enforcement confirmed his statements after a search of Lepsky’s home uncovered a pressure cooker in his bedroom closet. Lepsky was arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorism.

While eight ISIL supporters were arrested between March and August, the Justice Department continued to prosecute open cases. Here are some significant milestones in addition to those arrests:

Four men pleaded guilty to conspiring to or attempting to provide material support to ISIL. In the Eastern District of Virginia, Lionel Williams, 27, pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIL. I previously wrote about Williams’ attempted terrorism financing scheme here. Next door in Maryland, Mohamed Elshinawy, 32, pleaded guilty to material-support charges after he conspired with others to provide personnel, services (including means and methods of communication), and financial services, to ISIL. Finally, Dayne Antani Christian, 32, and Darren Arness Jackson, 51, pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Florida. In July 2016, I discussed the two defendants’ facilitation of their co-conspirator’s travel to Syria. That co-conspirator, Gregory Hubbard, is scheduled to go to trial in late October.

One ISIL-inspired defendant decided to forgo a guilty plea and went to trial. That defendant, Mohamad Jamal Khweis, 27, was convicted by a federal jury in the Eastern District of Virginia of providing material support to ISIL. Khweis, as I wrote about last June, left the U.S. to join ISIL and was picked up by Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq. Before being held in the U.S., the defendant was detained for three months by Kurdish authorities. Bobby Chesney discussed the implications of “proxy detention” and the Khweis case earlier this year.

Finally, the Justice Department resolved the cases of five men who were sentenced this past spring and summer on ISIL-related charges.

Two of the men attempted to murder U.S. military personnel. Terrence McNeil was sentenced to 20 years in prison for soliciting the murder of members of the U.S. military. In 2015, using his Tumblr account, McNeil reposted ISIL-published lists of the names and addresses of U.S. military members with the intent to have them killed. John Booker also targeted service members and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to detonate a vehicle bomb on the Fort Riley military base in Kansas in the name of ISIL.

On the other end of the spectrum, a veteran—Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh—was sentenced to 35 years in prison on material support charges. In 2015, the former U.S. Air Force member traveled overseas to join ISIL and was subsequently deported to the United States.

Two men—Harlem Suarez and Justin Nojan Sullivan—received life sentences. As I wrote about earlier this year, Sullivan conspired with ISIL leadership to conduct mass shootings in North Carolina and Virginia. I also discussed the Justice Department’s case against Harlem Suarez, who was convicted of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in a plot to conduct an attack on a Florida beach.

The Other Guys

Over the past five months, the FBI also arrested two international terrorism subjects who were completely unaffiliated with ISIL. These two men, terrorism operatives in the United States, were working on behalf of Hezbollah. Ali Kourani and Samer el Debek were charged for attempting and conspiring to provide material support to Hezbollah. Bobby Chesney discussed the significance of the charges.

Several other international terrorism defendants also pleaded guilty this summer. In July, Yahya Farooq Mohammad, 39, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide and conceal material support or resources to terrorists and one count of solicitation to commit a crime of violence in the Northern District of Ohio. As I described earlier, Mohammad was arrested after he conspired to provide thousands of dollars to Anwar Aulaqi. He then attempted to hire someone to kidnap and murder the judge, resulting in additional charges.

In the Southern District of Ohio, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a Jabhat al-Nusrah supporter, pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Nusrah Front. In April 2014, Mohamud traveled from Ohio to Istanbul and onward to Syria, where he received weapons and explosives training from al-Nusrah Front. In June 2014, Mohamud returned to the U.S., where he told an acquaintance that he wanted to attack a military facility or a prison, killing U.S. military members.

Finally, in the Eastern District of Virginia, two women were sentenced to just over a decade in prison for providing material support to al-Shabab. I previously wrote about the trial of Muna Osman Jama and Hinda Osman Dhirane here.

Overseas Cases

There were also significant developments this summer in international terrorism cases with defendants located overseas. Last week, I wrote about Judge Christopher Cooper’s ruling denying Abu Khatallah’s motion to suppress interviews with FBI agents. Khatallah, an alleged perpetrator of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya, is scheduled to go to trial in late September.

In addition to developments in the Khatallah case, Ali Charaf Damache, 52, of Algeria, made his initial appearance in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in July following extradition from Spain for his involvement in conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists. As the New York Times noted, Damache is the first foreigner brought to the U.S. to face terrorism charges under the Trump administration. According to the Justice Department, Damache conspired with Colleen LaRose—more commonly known by her alias Jihad Jane—to wage violent jihad in Europe. Along with a third co-conspirator, Jamie Paulin Ramirez, they recruited men and women to join a violent jihad organization whose members would travel to South Asia for explosives training before returning to Europe to conduct attacks. Damache, and his conspirators, was indicted in 2011.

Further south, in the Eastern District of Virginia, Mohamed Farah, 31, was sentenced to life plus 10 years in prison for engaging in piracy and committing other offenses pertaining to the attack on the USS Ashland, a U.S. Navy ship, in April 2010. Four of Farah’s co-conspirators, who were captured along with Farah after the attack, were previously sentenced.

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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