Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Terrorism & Extremism

Not Quite Making it to Syria: A Tale of Two Failed ISIS Recruits

Nora Ellingsen
Thursday, May 26, 2016, 7:28 AM

This week, the federal district courts in both the Southern District of New York and the Northern District of Texas confronted ISIS’s ability to recruit Americans to travel overseas to join and fight for the caliphate.

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This week, the federal district courts in both the Southern District of New York and the Northern District of Texas confronted ISIS’s ability to recruit Americans to travel overseas to join and fight for the caliphate.

First, on Wednesday in Texas, an Iraqi-born citizen who had previously traveled to Syria and returned to the U.S., reached the end of his journey when he was sentenced to four years in prison for making a false statement to a federal agency under 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

More than three years ago, before ISIS burst into the consciousness of mainstream America with the release of all of those beheading videos, Bilal Abood departed his Mesquite, Texas residence for Syria. According to the superseding indictment, Abood traveled through Mexico and across Europe, eventually reaching Syria, but returned to the U.S. that fall. Upon his return in September 2013, he admitted to the FBI that he had been in Syria, but denied supporting any terrorist groups, prosecutors alleged. While he told FBI agents he had never pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL, a July 2014 search of his computer proved otherwise, the indictment claimed. Just weeks before the search warrant was executed, Abood proclaimed on Twitter, “I pledge obedience to the Caliphate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

Abood pled guilty and in the admitted to the facts of the complaint, including that in April 2015 he falsely told FBI agents that he had never pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

The day before Abood's sentencing, in the Bronx, a young man was arrested on material support charges following an FBI undercover operation during which defendant Sajmir Alimehmeti also expressed his allegiance to ISIL and his desire to travel to Syria. Alimehmeti is accused of assisting a person whom he believed was traveling to Syria to join ISIL. Unfortunately for the 22-year-old Alimehmeti, that person turned out to be an undercover law enforcement employee working with FBI New York’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, according to the Justice Department's press release on the case. According to the complaint, prosecutors have charged Alimehmeti under 18 U.S.C. § 2339A(b) with attempting to provide material support to ISIL, as well as under 18 U.S.C. § 1542 for making a false statement in an application for a U.S. passport. Following his arrest, Alimehmeti was presented before Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein of the Southern District of New York, the Justice Department has said.

The complaint alleges that in late 2014, Alimehmeti came to the attention of authorities in the United Kingdom when he attempted to enter the country in both October and December of that year. The Brits first denied him entry and sent him packing back to the U.S. after discovering camouflage clothing and nunchucks in his luggage. Not easily deterred, Alimehmeti tried to breeze past British immigration authorities a few months later, but unfortunately for him, he had forgotten to erase those pesky ISIS-related images and Anwar al-Awlaki lectures from his cellphone and laptop. This time, the authorities not only shipped him back across the pond, but also picked up the phone to call the FBI, the complaint says.

Back stateside, the FBI set up a sting: Alimehmeti became closely acquainted with a law enforcement undercover employee, and beginning in the fall of 2015, these two new friends began meeting regularly, including at Alimehmeti’s apartment. Together, they watched ISIS videos online and discussed Alimehmeti’s travel ambitions. Like many twenty-somethings, Alimehmeti enjoyed working out. Unlike other twenty-somethings, however, he watched ISIS decapitation videos to motivate himself through particularly tough sweat sessions, the government alleges. He complained to his friend that he was jealous of their mutual acquaintance (actually another undercover employee) who had purportedly travelled to Raqqah and was now living and training in ISIL headquarters.

On May 17th, Alimehmeti and the undercover employee met with another friend of their Raqqah-based associate, a friend who was in New York City for a few hours before boarding a plane en route to join ISIS. You guessed it, this other friend was another undercover agent. Alimehmeti asked the traveler about his route to Syria, the complaint alleges, divulging that he had saved $2,500 to make it to Syria, but felt the need to get a passport in a different name as he feared he would be flagged in the system.

Alimehmeti then allegedly escorted the traveler across Manhattan, stocking up on last minute travel essentials—new shoes and cellphone.

He then did something interesting in light of the "going dark" debate: He advised his new friend on different kinds of encrypted messaging apps. The complaint alleges that Alimehmeti told the undercover employee that one of the encrypted messaging apps had been compromised, so "the brothers" switched to an alternative app. He went on to explain that if his previous communications had been intercepted he "would be done," and advised the undercover employee, even when using encrypted apps, not to "say things straight up."

After offering to provide the undercover employee with some of the military-style supplies he had previously purchased online, he then traveled with the undercover agent to a hotel room in Queens, where the undercover employee was meeting with his document facilitator who was to provide him with a passport. Alimehmeti scribbled his name on a piece of paper and asked the undercover employee to pass his contact information along to the facilitator before dropping the employee off at JFK airport: “I’m ready to fucking go with you, man…you know I would…I’m done with this place. There are kuffar everywhere,” he allegedly said.

Currently facing a combined possible 30 years in prison for both charges, Alimehmeti may have to wait a little bit longer before going to Syria.

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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