Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Terrorism & Extremism

International Terrorism Prosecutions: Tying up Loose Conspiracies

Nora Ellingsen
Thursday, September 15, 2016, 11:47 AM

Over the past few weeks, the Justice Department has continued to tie up loose ends in the realm of criminal terrorism prosecutions.

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Over the past few weeks, the Justice Department has continued to tie up loose ends in the realm of criminal terrorism prosecutions.

Beginning on August 24th in a federal district court in the Northern District of Mississippi, Muhammad Oda Dakhlalla, 23, was sentenced to 96 months for conspiring with Jaelyn Delshaun Young to provide material support to ISIL. As I wrote last month, the young couple attempted to travel to Syria in August 2015. After being stopped by law enforcement at the airport in Columbus, Mississippi, both defendants confessed that they were trying to travel to Turkey to join ISIL in Syria. Young was sentenced to 144 months years in prison—four years longer than her husband and co-conspirator.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, another terrorism conspiracy continues to wind its way through the court system. This past June, I mentioned that the first multi-defendant, ISIL-related trial had come to a close, with three out of the ten co-conspirators found guilty at trial in the District of Minnesota. Prior to the trial, six of the co-conspirators pleaded guilty. The remaining co-conspirator, Abdi Nur, remained in Syria, where the U.S. government says that he is currently fighting for ISIL.

On August 24th, the government charged the eleventh conspirator in the case: Mohamed Amiin Ali Roble, Nur’s nephew, who is currently in Syria with his uncle. Roble was charged with conspiring to provide material support, specifically personnel and resources, to ISIL. According to the criminal complaint (which relies, in part, on the cooperation of several of Roble’s co-conspirators), Roble spoke of his uncle’s May 2014 departure fondly, saying Nur was in a “better place” and that he wanted to get to Syria as well. Later, these same co-conspirators would see pictures of Roble on social media standing in a desert, holding a black ISIL flag and an assault rifle.

Roble’s path to Syria was somewhat unique, both financially and geographically. Unlike most of the young men who travel to Syria to join ISIL—and most teenagers in general—Roble had substantial funds at his disposal. Seven years prior to his travel, he was injured when Interstate 35W collapsed over the Mississippi River, just north of downtown Minneapolis. Thirteen people were killed, and Roble’s parents filed suit on behalf of their son against the State, as well as the engineering firm and contractor. Roble ended up settling for just short of six figures—$91,654.22.

Years later, this money would find its way to Syria. According to conversations recorded by an FBI source, Roble, while in Syria, bought a car for ISIL fighters, as well as paid for two marriages and continued to pass “out money like it’s candy.”

Roble’s physical route to Syria is also unusual. While applying for a passport in August 2014, he claimed he was travelling to study in China, but was turned away when he was unable to name the educational institution he would supposedly be attending. Several days later, Roble returned to the passport office with his father, was issued a passport, and left Minneapolis for China’s Hubei Province in October 2014. One month later, four of his co-conspirators would attempt to leave the country from New York—but were once again were prevented from leaving by federal law enforcement.

In early November, a week after his friends were turned away at the airport, Roble flew from China to Istanbul. One week later, he telephoned his mother in Minneapolis and told her he was in Turkey “shopping” and needed an airline ticket back to China. Roble flew back to China on November 17th, but shortly thereafter returned to Istanbul on December 27th. According to the criminal complaint, Roble never purchased a return ticket to China, venturing into Syria instead.

The government reports that IP logins indicate Roble is co-located with Nur. Furthermore, the prosecution team alleges that from December through May 2015, Roble withdrew almost $50,000 from his bank account from ATMs in Gaziantep, Turkey—a popular transit point for men and women looking to cross the border into Syria and join ISIL.

On September 6th in federal district court in the Central District of California, Paul Anthony Ciancia pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the 2013 LAX shooting, during which he murdered a TSA officer. While this case falls outside the bounds of international terrorism (in fact, the press release was published by the Criminal Section of the Justice Department), the prosecution team did include an Assistant U.S. Attorney from the Central District’s Terrorism and Export Crimes Section.

The charges themselves, according to the plea agreement, do not include any of the charges typically leveled against terrorism suspects, such as material support or even lying to federal law enforcement. Instead, Ciancia was charged with two counts of attempted murder of a federal officer; four counts of violence at an international airport; one count of discharging of a firearm during a crime of violence causing death; and three counts of discharging a firearm during a crime of violence.

According to the Factual Basis Appendix of the plea agreement, Ciancia admitted to sending a text to his sister while en route to LAX with an explicit explanation for his motivations: “There wasn’t a terrorist attack on Nov. 1. There was a pissed off patriot trying to water the tree of liberty.” Instead of a foreign terrorist organization, Ciancia referenced the New World Order as his inspiration for the attack.

The government has withdrawn its notice of intent to seek the death penalty, and Ciancia now faces a sentence of life without parole in federal prison.

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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