International Terrorism Prosecutions During Winter 2019
Although the Washington Post reports the FBI has arrested more domestic terrorism suspects than international terror suspects over the past two years, recent months have seen foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State returning home to the United States to be prosecuted and other individuals who provided support working their way through the justice system. As of March 21, 178 individuals have been charged in the U.S. on offenses related to the Islamic State since the first arrests occurred in March 2014. Meanwhile, four sentences for providing material support to the Islamic State that judges issued in the past two months show a trend in how courts punish that crime. Individuals affiliated with other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar e-Taiba have also been arrested, convicted and sentenced since the start of the new year. Below is a brief update and highlight of the new and ongoing cases.
Two interesting and unusual prosecutions of Islamic State affiliates made it to court over the past few months. First, the Justice Department confirmed on Jan. 25 that the FBI had arrested Warren Christopher Clark for attempting to provide material support in the form of himself by traveling to join the Islamic State. As Seamus Hughes and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens have explained, Clark is the 15th known returned foreign fighter. He was captured in Syria on Jan. 6 and arrived in the Southern District of Texas, where he was arrested, on Jan. 24.
Second, Ismail Hamed was arrested on Jan. 7 for an alleged attack on a police officer, and on Jan. 15 he was charged under Arizona state law with providing material support to the Islamic State. So far—and very unusually, as Lisa Daniels explained on Lawfare—his case remains in state court.
There were also two cases that involved unique forms of support for the Islamic State. Tayyab Tahir Ismail, a 33-year-old resident of Florida, pleaded guilty to distributing information pertaining to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction. According to a court document, Ismail posted instructions and documents on constructing explosive devices, including a pro-Islamic State suicide-vest instructional video, to various rooms within a mobile messaging platform that contained members who support violent jihad, and the Islamic State in particular. Ismail is scheduled for sentencing on May 23.
On Jan. 29, Charlton Edward LaChase, a 28-year-old defendant from Florida, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of transmitting threats through interstate or foreign commerce. While Chase was traveling through Latin America in January 2018, he sent text messages with death threats to several individuals in the U.S. and professed his support for the Islamic State, according to the complaint.
Other cases show how individuals supporting the Islamic State continue to work their way through the system in arrests, pleas and sentencings. Federal law enforcement arrested two individuals on charges of conspiracy to support terrorism. On March 12, Kim Anh Vo was arrested in Georgia for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. As documented in the complaint, in April 2016, Vo allegedly joined an online group called the United Cyber Caliphate that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, was committed to carrying out online attacks against Americans, and had disseminated “kill lists” of names of individuals, including U.S. soldiers and State Department officials, who they wanted their followers to kill. Between April 2016 and May 2017, Vo recruited others to join the group and assist with its hacking efforts.
And on Jan. 22, Muse Abdikadir Muse, Mohamud Abdikadir Muse and Mohamed Salat Haji—who were born in Kenya and are now naturalized U.S. citizens—were arrested in Michigan for conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State in Somalia. Muse Abdikadir Muse was arrested at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, airport on his way to Somalia, while the other two, who drove him to the airport, were arrested shortly thereafter. In addition to Muse Abdikadir Muse’s attempt to travel, all three recorded videos pledging their support for the Islamic State, among other indications of support on social media.
There was also one material support indictment. On Jan. 29, Damon Joseph, who was arrested on Dec. 10, was indicted in the Northern District of Ohio and charged with three counts, including attempts to provide material support and commit a hate crime, and possessing firearms in furtherance of violence. He had intended to attack a Toledo-area synagogue.
Finally, there was one material support plea: On Feb. 25, Armin Harcevic pleaded guilty in Missouri federal court to conspiring to provide material support and the substantive charge of providing material support. In furtherance of the conspiracy, Harcevic allegedly sent funds intended for Abdullah Ramo Pazara, a U.S. citizen who joined the Islamic State in 2013. The five other defendants in the indictment have pleaded not guilty. Harcevic will be sentenced on June 7.
Four material support sentences also came down, three of which had almost exactly the same severity. First, on Feb. 4, Erick Jamal Hendricks was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State after being convicted by a jury in Akron, Ohio. As Nora Ellingsen explained, Hendricks was unlike many other terrorism defendants who were charged with material support after attempting to travel or provide material resources to the Islamic State because Hendricks’s primary focus was on recruiting individuals to conduct attacks within the United States. One of the individuals he recruited, Amir Al-Ghazi, is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and being a felon in possession of firearms.
Second, on Feb. 26, Amer Sinan Alhaggagi was sentenced to 188 months (or 15 years and 8 months) for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and identity theft. The government alleges that he posted online about the terrorist attacks he intended to commit—including car bombs and targeting first responders—and that he also continued to plan attacks while he was incarcerated. He pleaded guilty to communicating with and creating online accounts for people he thought were Islamic State supporters and an identity-theft charge stemming from the day of his arrest. Third, on March 1, Gregory Lepsky was sentenced to 16 years for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. He had been building a bomb for the Islamic State at the time of his arrest in February 2017. In addition to his prison term, Lepsky was sentenced to supervised release for life.
One other material support sentence—of Jason Ludke—was only about half the length of the sentences that Hendricks, Alhaggagi and Lepsky received. Ludke was sentenced to seven years for material support, which was much closer to the defense’s request of five years than the government’s request of 20 years (the statutory maximum). Ludke had pleaded guilty on Oct. 25, 2018, after his arrest in 2016.
Cases involving supporters of other terrorist groups continue, with less frequency than Islamic State cases. Over the past two months, two individuals were arrested for planning activities in support of or inspired by al-Qaeda and another two al-Qaeda supporters were sentenced.
On Jan. 16, Hasher Jallal Taheb, a 21-year-old resident of Georgia, was arrested on suspicion of planning to attack the White House with explosives and other weapons. According to the criminal complaint, the FBI started tracking Taheb after a community member noted that Taheb had become “radicalized, changed his name, and made plans to travel abroad.” Taheb had multiple meetings with an undercover FBI source and an agent between October and January during which he explained his desire to conduct attacks in the U.S., and eventually started describing his plans to attack the White House with hand-drawn diagrams and the specific types of weapons he wanted to use. Taheb called this a “martyrdom operation.” Ultimately, Taheb was arrested after taking possession of weapons from the FBI source and undercover agent. The complaint does not identify Taheb as affiliating with any particular terrorist group, but it said that he sent his two presumed collaborators a link to a lecture by Anwar al-Awlaki, the former leader of al-Qaeda.
In a similar case, Demetrius Nathaniel Pitts, a 49-year-old from Ohio, was charged with attempting to provide material support to al-Qaeda, making threats against the president and the first family, and making false statements to law enforcement. Pitts was initially arrested in July 2018 and later indicted on one count of attempting to provide material support to al-Qaeda after allegedly planning a terrorist attack in Cleveland during the city’s Fourth of July parade. The superseding indictment filed on Feb. 13 claims that Pitts also made a threat to kidnap and inflict bodily harm against the president and the president’s family in June of last year.
Finally, Ibrahim Zubar Mohammad, an Indian citizen and lawful permanent resident in the U.S., and Sultane Room Salim, a U.S. citizen, were both sentenced to five years in prison during the week of Jan. 14 after pleading guilty to concealing the financing of terrorism. Mohammad and Salim were part of a group of four defendants who were indicted in 2015 for conspiring to provide material support to terrorism by sending funds and equipment to Anwar al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda to carry out “violent jihad” against the U.S. and U.S. military in Iraq, in Afghanistan and around the world. Mohammad will be deported upon the completion of his sentence.
The Taliban and Lashkar e-Taiba
February also saw three new cases against individuals involved with the Taliban and Lashkar e-Taiba. Haji Abdul Satar Abdul Manaf was arrested on Feb. 6 for attempting to import heroin into the U.S., engaging in narcoterrorism to benefit the Taliban and attempting to engage in narcoterrorism for the benefit of the Haqqani network (a designated foreign terrorist organization based in southeastern Afghanistan that is aligned with the Taliban). Manaf, a citizen of Afghanistan, was initially taken into custody in Estonia in October 2018 and then extradited to the U.S. in February. According to the indictment, beginning in January 2018, Manaf worked with confidential U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sources whom he believed to be affiliated with an international drug trafficking organization to help arrange the import of heroin into the U.S. with the knowledge that some of the proceeds would go to the Taliban.
Last, two individuals were charged for activities in support of Lashkar e-Taiba, a designated foreign terrorist organization based in Pakistan that is most well known for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. On Feb. 8, Michael Kyle Sewell, an 18-year-old from north Texas, was charged with conspiring to provide material support and resources to the group. Sewell allegedly used social media to recruit and encourage an individual to travel to Pakistan to join the terror organization. On the same day, Jesus Wilfredo Encarnacion, a 29-year-old from Manhattan, was charged with attempting and conspiring to provide material support to Lashkar e-Taiba after being arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He was allegedly on his way to Pakistan via Europe to join the organization. According to the complaint, as of November 2018, Encarnacion repeatedly expressed his desire and plans to join the terrorist group so that he could receive training and participate in acts of terrorism, including against the United States.