International Terrorism Prosecutions: 2017's Second Material Support Arrest

By Nora Ellingsen
Thursday, March 2, 2017, 2:26 PM

On February 21st, twenty-five year old Robert Lorenzo Hester, Jr. was charged in federal district court in the Western District of Missouri with attempting to provide material support to ISIL. Hester is the second person—after Noor Salman, the wife of the Orlando nightclub shooter—to be arrested on material support charges by the FBI in 2017. By comparison, the FBI arrested 41 subjects on ISIL-related offenses in 2016, according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Like many subjects, including Harlem Suarez (whom I wrote about just last week), Hester came onto the FBI’s radar due to his extremist, ISIL-inspired social media posts. Using its traditional toolkit, the FBI tasked an online undercover employee to reach out to the subject online and later introduced two undercover FBI agents who met with Hester face to face.

With the help of these agents, Hester began devising a terrorist attack, cementing his place within the ranks of native-born U.S. citizens plotting violent attacks within the United States. Born and raised in Missouri, Hester also served briefly in the U.S. Army, another disturbingly common trend amongst ISIL-inspired suspects, before receiving a general discharge from service in 2013. In talks with the undercover agents, Hester promised to draw on his military background as they began their attack plotting. According to the complaint, he reassured the undercover agents that he could provide firearms training to other alleged participants in the attack. In fact, until October 2016, when he threatened a store employee with a handgun, Hester maintained access to firearms.

The man planned an attack that would be “ten times more” than the Boston Marathon bombing. The prosecution alleges that Hester initially suggested attacking a military base, explaining to one of the undercover officers that bases are easy to access as long as you have a state ID. Hester also had some fairly sophisticated ideas when it came to selecting a target: he wanted to hurt the economy. He researched oil plants in Missouri—“oil production has to be shut down to control the government’s movement”—and mused that they could hurt the economy by getting into, “computer systems and stuff.” Finally, Hester and the undercover agents settled on targeting buses, trains, and a train station in Kansas City, Missouri on President’s Day. Hester bought the bomb-making supplies himself, including 9-volt batteries, duct tape, copper wire, and roofing nails, although one of the agents provided Hester with the $22 for the purchase.

According to the Justice Department’s press release, FBI agents arrested Hester on February 17th after he arrived at a planned meeting with one of the undercover agents.

Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, three ISIL-inspired subjects were sentenced in federal district court. In Virginia, Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan was sentenced to 11 years in prison for attempting to provide material support to ISIL and making false statements to the FBI, according to the Justice Department’s press release. As I wrote about last July, Elhassan dropped off his friend Joseph Hassan Farrokh at the airport on his way to join ISIL, and later planned to travel himself. Last year, Farrokh was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison.

Also in the Eastern District of Virginia, Harris Qamar was sentenced to just under nine years in prison for attempting to provide material support to ISIL. According to the Justice Department’s press release, Qamar wanted to travel overseas to join ISIL and went so far as to purchase a plane ticket to Istanbul in 2014, but was prevented from doing so when his parents caught onto his plans and confiscated his passport. The government alleges that he then settled for helping an FBI source take pictures around the Washington, D.C. area that he believed would be used in an ISIL video, encouraging lone wolf attacks in the area.

Two days before Qamar’s sentencing, the FBI actually arrested two of his acquaintances. Soufian Amri, 32, and Michael Queen, 28, of Woodbridge, Virginia, were charged with obstructing justice and conspiring to provide material false statements to law enforcement officers who were investigating Qamar. The publically available complaints don’t provide any additional information; however, as I mentioned last month, the FBI has historically arrested acquaintances of attackers on similar charges.

Finally, in federal district court in Wisconsin, Joshua van Haften was sentenced to ten years in prison for personally attempting to provide material support to ISIL, according to the press release. As I previously wrote, van Haften actually successfully left the country to join ISIL, traveling to Turkey in 2014. Unsuccessful in his attempts to actually enter Syria, he then returned to the U.S. in early 2015 and was arrested in O’Hare Airport by FBI agents.