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The U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria and the subsequent Turkish invasion of the region has brought new urgency to the question of how to handle the foreign fighters who are now detained in Syria and Iraq. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said that, so far, “more than a hundred” Islamic State foreign fighters have escaped from prisons guarded by Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops after the Kurds abandoned the prisons in order to try to fend off Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s forces. The Turkish invasion has also threatened the security of refugee camps, which house an estimated 20,000 women and 50,000 children who are relatives of Islamic State foreign fighters.
Hundreds of Islamic State foreign fighter jihadists may now seek to return to their European homes, creating the biggest counterterrorism challenge facing European states today. The U.S. has continually pushed for the Europeans to take responsibility for their citizens by repatriating foreign fighters and trying them in domestic courts. The American government has attempted to set an example for its European counterparts, by taking back any U.S. citizen captured in the conflict zone, as well as taking into custody other “high-profile” foreign fighters detained in Iraq and Syria.
The number of American foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria is relatively small. According to a GW Program on Extremism report from February 2018, 73 Americans (out of about 300 who attempted to travel to the Islamic State) have successfully traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2011. As of January 2019, 15 of those travelers had returned to the U.S., mostly to be arrested and charged (the 15th was Warren Christopher Clark, on whom we reported at the time). That figure, however, is trending upward; over the past six months, Americans have returned home in greater numbers.
Some women and children have been resettled, and many alleged jihadists have been charged in U.S. federal courts. Meanwhile, other individuals who provided support to the Islamic State without traveling have been working their way through the justice system. As of Oct. 1, 196 individuals have been charged in the U.S. on offenses related to the Islamic State since the first arrests occurred in March 2014.
Here, we provide an update on recent international terrorism prosecutions in the U.S. and highlight new and ongoing cases amid the current crisis in Syria. We take a look at the state of U.S. international terrorism prosecutions, both of individuals allegedly associated with the Islamic State and of those with ties to other groups.
Islamic State Arrests and Indictments
Since our last update in March, 10 individuals have been arrested and indicted on charges relating to crimes in support of or inspired by the Islamic State. Most notably, and relevant to the ongoing debate about what to do with foreign fighters, two Americans who were detained by the SDF were turned over to the FBI and indicted by American grand juries.
On Aug. 1, Omer Kuzu, a 23-year-old citizen from Dallas, Texas, was indicted for traveling to Syria and conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. According to the criminal complaint, Kuzu and his brother allegedly traveled from Texas to Istanbul and then were smuggled into Syria by Islamic State operatives in October 2014. Kuzu eventually ended up in Mosul, Iraq, where he received physical and weapons training from Islamic State instructors. He then went back to Syria, where he was issued a Chinese-made AK-47 and paid $125 per month to repair communications equipment for frontline fighters. Along with many other Islamic State members, Kuzu was ultimately captured by the SDF in early 2019.
Ruslan Maratovich Asainov, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Kazakhstan who formerly lived in Brooklyn, New York, also entered Syria via Turkey to join the Islamic State and was recently indicted. Like Kuzu, Asainov was captured by the SDF and transferred to the FBI in July 2019. Upon his return to the U.S., Kuzu was charged with five counts: one count of conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State; two counts of providing material support in the form of personnel, training, expert advice, and assistance and weapons; one count of receipt of military-type training from the Islamic State; and one count of obstruction of justice. According to the complaint and the government’s detention memo, Asainov traveled to Syria in December 2013 and started out as a sniper for the Islamic State. He subsequently rose through the ranks to become an “emir” in charge of weapons training. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Although the Department of Justice has not commented on the matter, we know that other Americans have also been flown home from Syria or have been removed from SDF detention facilities with plans to transfer them to the U.S. On June 5, for example, eight Americans (two women and six minors) were taken back to the U.S. to be resettled. Their identities have not been disclosed, it is not clear whether they will face any charges, and it is still unknown who was responsible for conducting the removal. According to the New Yorker, in June, there were about 20 Americans in Syria who the U.S. eventually intended to bring home. It’s unclear from that reporting whether that group was composed mostly of Islamic State fighters or whether it was predominantly family members of the fighters.
Two individuals were arrested after failed attempts to travel abroad to join the Islamic State. Ahmed Mahad Mohamed and Abdi Yemani Hussein, both residents of Tucson, Arizona, were arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. They both exchanged communications with undercover FBI agents in which they expressed their support for the group. The men then decided to join the group’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, and were arrested at Tucson International Airport while waiting to board a plane to Cairo, Egypt.
Two individuals were also arrested for attempting to provide support to the Islamic State overseas. In July, two brothers from Indiana, Moyad Dannon and Madhe Dannon, were charged with multiple firearm felonies and with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. The brothers allegedly sold illegally obtained and illegally manufactured firearms to undercover FBI agents and agreed to manufacture 55 unlicensed firearms for an individual they believed would ship them overseas to the Islamic State. They were arrested after selling five of these weapons to undercover agents at the southwestern U.S. border.
Four individuals were arrested during this period for planning attacks in the U.S. in support of or inspired by the Islamic State. Since March 2014, 32 percent of the 196 individuals who have been charged with offenses related to the Islamic State have been accused of being involved in plots to carry out attacks on U.S. soil.
On April 8, Rondell Henry, was charged with interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle after he stole a U-Haul van with the intention of using it as a weapon against pedestrians on sidewalks along the Potomac River in Maryland. According to the government’s detention memo, Henry allegedly harbored “hatred” for those who do not practice the Muslim faith and was inspired by the 2016 truck attack in Nice, France, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. On Aug. 28, a federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment charging Henry with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State in addition to the initial charge of interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle. Next, on June 6, Ashiqul Alam, a 22-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was arrested and charged with purchasing firearms with obliterated serial numbers. According to the criminal complaint, Alam had expressed his support for the Islamic State to an FBI undercover agent and was formulating plans to attack Times Square in support of the group. On June 19, Mustafa Mousab Alowemer was arrested based on a federal complaint charging him with one count of attempting to provide material support and resources to the Islamic State and two counts of distributing information relating to an explosive destructive device. The second charge related to his plan to attack a church in Pittsburgh. Finally, on Aug. 29, Awais Chudhary, a 19-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, was arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State for allegedly planning a stabbing or bombing attack in New York on behalf of the Islamic State, according to the criminal complaint. Chudhary was arrested when attempting to retrieve items that he had ordered online to complete the attack, including a knife, a mask and gloves.
Islamic State Convictions and Guilty Pleas
In addition to those charged, 11 individuals were convicted of offenses related to the Islamic State during this period. Seven of those individuals pleaded guilty, including one minor in state court. On April 8, Matin Azizi-Yarand, an 18-year-old from Plano, Texas, pleaded guilty to state charges of solicitation of capital murder and making a terroristic threat and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Azizi-Yarand had been plotting a terrorist attack at a Collin County, Texas shopping mall, inspired by the Islamic State. The case was filed in state district court in Collin County since Yarand was 17 at the time of the offense—individuals age 17 and older are considered adults under Texas state criminal law, whereas federal law requires an individual to be 18.
On April 22, Waheba Issa Dais of Wisconsin pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. The charge was based on her conduct in support of the Islamic State in 2018. Dais used hacked Facebook accounts and encrypted social media channels to communicate and encourage other Islamic State supporters, recruit new members, and disseminate information about explosives and biological weapons. Similarly, on July 8, Kaan Sercan Damlarkaya, a 20-year-old from Houston, Texas, entered a guilty plea for attempting to provide material support after partaking in discussions about weapons related to Islamic State activities. In some of his online conversations, Damlarkaya also expressed his intention to travel overseas to join the terrorist group and his desire to attack non-Muslims in the U.S. if he was unable to leave the country.
On Aug. 15, Azizjon Rakhmatov, 32, a citizen of Uzbekistan and resident of New Haven, Connecticut pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State by giving money to his co-conspirator, Akhror Saidakhmetov, to fund Saidakhmetov’s travel to Syria and his expenses there. Saidakhmetov was arrested before departing for Turkey, a waypoint on his journey to Syria, and has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. One of Rakhmatov’s other co-conspirators, Dilkhayot Kasimov, a citizen of Uzbekistan and resident of Brooklyn, was found guilty by a jury on Sept. 25 of conspiracy and of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. Kasimov, like Rakhmatov, provided money to help fund Saidakhmetov’s travel and expenses in Syria in February 2015.
And on Aug. 23, two women from Queens, Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas, pleaded guilty to teaching and distributing information pertaining to the making and use of explosive, destructive devices. Between 2013 and 2015, the two women planned to build a bomb for use in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil by teaching each other chemistry and the electrical skills necessary to create and detonate explosives. The two also acquired the materials to be used in an explosive device. As Audrey Alexander has explained on Lawfare, this case is particularly noteworthy because relatively few women support the Islamic State—90 percent of the 196 relevant cases have involved men.
The last of those who pleaded guilty was Robert Lorenzo Hester Jr., a 28-year-old from Missouri, who pleaded guilty on Sept. 24 to attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State for his role in making preparations to launch a terrorist attack in the U.S. After posting about the Islamic State on multiple social media accounts, Hester participated in conversations with undercover FBI agents during which he discussed overthrowing the U.S. government and identifying potential targets for an attack. After indicating to an undercover agent that he was ready to assist in a “plot,” he obtained items that he believed would be used as bomb components and was subsequently arrested.
In addition to Dilkhayot Kasimov, the Uzbek from Brooklyn convicted on material support charges, four other defendants were convicted by juries of terrorism-related charges. On March 21, a federal jury in Charlotte, North Carolina, convicted Alexander Samuel Smith on two counts of making false statements to federal law enforcement officers in an international terrorism case. Smith had been in contact with an FBI confidential source, who he thought was an Islamic State representative, about trying to travel to Syria and help others travel there. However, during an interview with the FBI, Smith denied that he told someone about these plans. On May 6, a federal jury in Dallas convicted Said Azzam Mohamad Rahim of one count of conspiracy and one count of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and six counts of making false statements involving international terrorism to federal authorities. Rahim moderated a social media channel dedicated to recruiting fighters for the Islamic State and was arrested in 2017 while attempting to board a flight to Jordan. Rahim lied to federal investigators about his support for the Islamic State. Finally, on June 21, two men from a suburb of Chicago, Joseph D. Jones and Edward Schimenti, were both convicted on one count of conspiring to provide material support and resources to the Islamic State. Schimenti was also convicted on one count of making false statements to the FBI. The pair advocated on social media for extremism in support of the Islamic State and made cell phones that they believed would be used to detonate explosive devices in Islamic State attacks abroad.
Sentencing for Providing Material Support to the Islamic State
Several individuals who had previously been convicted of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State were sentenced in the past several months. Four defendants who were convicted of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State in the form of personnel all were given similar sentences. In April, Adam Raishani (previously discussed in our 2018 wrap-up), who pleaded guilty after being arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport attempting to board a flight to Turkey to travel to Syria, was sentenced to the statutory maximum of 20 years in prison. Zakaryia Abdin, who pleaded guilty after being arrested at an airport attempting to travel to Jordan, was also sentenced to 20 years. Mohamed Rafik Naji also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The circumstances of Naji’s arrest differed from those of Raishani and Abdin because Naji had successfully left the U.S. and traveled to Yemen in an attempt to join the Islamic State in March 2015. He was arrested following his return to the U.S. in November 2016 after he continued to express his support for the Islamic State and violent jihad in conversations with an FBI confidential informant. Finally, Laith Waleed Alebbini was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Like Raishani and Abdin, he was arrested at the airport on his way to Turkey and convicted following a bench trial in 2018.
Two material support sentences—of Mediha Medy Salkicevic and Armin Harcevic—were less than half the length of the sentences that the others received. Salkicevic and Harcevic were part of a larger network of individuals with Bosnian nationality that collectively sent money and gear to a Bosnian American national, Abdullah Ramo Pazara, who was fighting with the Islamic State in Syria. In March, Salkicevic was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State; and in August, Harcevic was sentenced to five and a half years. One material support sentence—of Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa—was longer than the others. ‘Isa pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiring to kill American soldiers in Iraq in March 2018 and was sentenced to 26 years imprisonment.
Al-Qaeda and AQAP
In August, Bilal Al-Riyanni, who went abroad for three months in 2014 to help al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was charged with providing material support to AQAP, including a charge for providing himself as material support in the form of personnel. This spring, Amor Ftouhi—an al-Qaeda supporter whose guilty verdict we covered in our 2018 wrap-up—was sentenced to life for his attacks at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Michigan, after the judge observed that he was unrepentant and potentially dangerous. Naif Abdulaziz M. Alfallaj, whose guilty plea we discussed in an earlier update, was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison for a false statement about his presence in an al-Qaeda training camp nearly 20 years ago.
Activity against Hizballah and its subsidiaries has also continued. In September, Alexei Saab was indicted in the Southern District of New York for several charges relating to his support for Hizballah and component organizations. His complaint details the alleged offenses, including providing surveillance for attacks and receiving military training. Ali Kourani, whose charges were discussed by Nora Ellingsen and analyzed by Bobby Chesney two years ago, was found guilty by a Manhattan jury.
Jonathan Xie, of New Jersey, was arrested for attempting to provide material support to Hamas this past May. The complaint explained how, in one instance, Xie gave $100 to someone he believed was a member of a Hamas subsidiary that conducted attacks against Israeli targets, and then posted on his Instagram that he had done so. Delowar Mohammed Hossain, of the Bronx, New York, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport as he attempted to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. As the complaint describes, he also confided in a confidential source that he was en route to Pakistan via Thailand. Finally, Michael Kyle Sewell, whose charges we noted in the spring, pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiring to provide material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba and was sentenced to 20 years.