Counterterrorism

New Material Support Indictments, Same Old Story

By Nora Ellingsen
Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 3:24 PM

Last week, the FBI arrested an 18-year-old as he boarded a Greyhound bus in Indianapolis, according to the Justice Department’s press release. The complaint charges Akram Musleh with providing material support to ISIL. More specifically, providing himself as personnel to the terrorist group.

Like many of the young men who tried to reach the Caliphate, but instead ended up in federal prison, Musleh's case touched on several familiar themes. Following in the footsteps of Nicholas Teausant, Muhanad Badawi, Sajmir Alimehmeti, and likely most other young males who have attempted to travel to Syria, Musleh actively used social media to chat with and receive advice from ISIL members. Jumping between platforms, he chatted with at least four ISIL members referenced in the complaint. He told these men about his desire to travel to join ISIL, although one online friend suggested he conduct an attack in the United States, perhaps on U.S. Military personnel in Florida. Similar to Teausant, he considered the possibility making his mark in the United States, viewing lists of potential terror targets in Indiana, and conducted extensive searches on explosive materials and pressure cookers, a component of the bombs used in the 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. He also drove to Wal-Mart, where FBI surveillance teams observed him shopping for pressure cookers, before leaving without making a purchase.

But Musleh’s case wasn’t all boilerplate—interestingly, the FBI did not initially try to arrest Musleh and instead tried to intervene. According to the complaint, Musleh was just 15-years-old in August 2013 when he posted several videos of Anwar Al-Awlaki to YouTube. The high schooler had registered his YouTube account in his true name and soon found himself in a meeting with school officials and FBI agents. The Brownsburg High School worked with the FBI to try to dissuade Musleh from engaging in radical extremism, speaking with the teenager about the videos he had posted as well as Al-Awlaki’s history.

Unfortunately, the intervention failed and Musleh popped back up on law enforcement’s radar nine months later when he began taking selfies with an ISIL flag. Within the next couple of years he went down the familiar road of booking one-way tickets to Turkey. Although the fact that he had the financial resources to book a total of five tickets to Syrian entry points also distinguishes him from many of the FBI’s counterterrorism subjects. In June 2015 he finally boarded one of these flights to Istanbul, but was stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who explained to the teenager that he would be unable to travel since his passport was about to expire. During the interview, Musleh told the CBP agents he planned to meet and marry his fiancée in Istanbul. According to the FBI’s investigation, Musleh’s fiancée is an ISIL sympathizer who lives in Sweden. Oddly enough, this excuse is not infrequent—Nader Elhuzayel also claimed he was traveling overseas to meet, and marry, his fiancée.

Musleh returned home that day after his interview, but demonstrated a persistence that has only recently been matched by the Minnesota crew. In April 2016, he purchased another one-way ticket for that June, this time from New York to Morocco. Here again, his story, this time in his choice of destination, becomes atypical. Unfortunately, while Musleh has been completing high school the world has changed and reaching Syria without raising suspicions from law enforcement has become increasingly difficult. After extensive online conversations, Musleh settles on joining ISIL in Libya, figuring he can either fly from Morocco to Sudan, or just drive the 2700 miles of desert.

On June 21, 2016, Musleh entered the Greyhound Bus Station in Indianapolis as planned, en route to JFK Airport. When presenting his ticket to board he was intercepted by FBI agents and immediately placed under arrest. Musleh had his initial appearance that same day before Magistrate Judge Tim Baker in the Southern District of Indiana; his detention hearing is scheduled for Monday, June 27th. If convicted, Musleh faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a lifetime of supervised release and a $250,000 fine

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, a federal district court filed charges against a young man who, unlike Musleh, was successful in his attempts to reach Syria. Earlier this month, a federal district court in the Eastern District of Virginia unsealed a criminal complaint, filed nearly a month earlier, charging Mohamad Jamal Khweis with providing and conspiring to provide material support to ISIL, according to the Justice Department’s press release.

Khweis joins the likes of Bilal Abood, and Abdi Nur—Americans who actually made it to Syria. However, while Nur remains a fugitive, and Abood was charged with lying to federal agents, Khweis’ charges carry a heftier penalty that he’ll have to face in federal court.

Khweis, a 26-year-old Alexandria, Virginia native, gained a certain level of Internet notoriety in May when he became the first American ISIL member to be picked up by Kurdish Peshmerga military forces within the Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq. Having recently left the ISIL-controlled city of Tal Afar, he allegedly voluntarily submitted to the Peshmerga who quickly released his picture, as well as his Virginia drivers license to the media. His fifteen minutes of fame were extended when, days later, he participated in a Kurdish media interview, smiling and laughing as he described his time spent with ISIL. Although he renounced the terrorist group during the interview, in subsequent interviews with the FBI Khweis admitted that while he freely participated in the interview, he also provided misleading information for self-protection.

Although a particularly high profile case, Khweis’ journey began like many others—on social media. While the defendant was in Kurdish custody, the FBI conducted several Mirandized interviews, during which the Khweis admitted to providing material support to ISIL. By his admission, as alleged in the complaint, Khweis began his journey with online research, watching ISIL execution and “military” videos. Following a familiar trend, he reached out ISIL-affiliated social media accounts to figure out how to get into Syria and conducted his own research on smuggling routes across the Syrian-Turkish border. Months later when the FBI exploited his cell phones, they would find maps of the Syria-Turkey border, and others that zoomed in on Raqqa and Aleppo.

In mid-December 2015, Khweis rented a car in Alexandria, Virginia and drove to Baltimore-Washington International Airport where he left the United States, the government alleges. He described to FBI agents how he traveled to London and the Netherlands before finally reaching Turkey, where he again relied on social media to facilitate his travel. His new “green bird” Twitter account indicated his support for violent jihad and put his online collaborators at ease.

Khweis described to agents how he initially stayed in a safe house in Raqqa with recruits from around the world. He adopted the kunya, Abu Omar al-Amriki to reflect his American origins and told ISIL leaders he wanted to be a suicide bomber. However, according to the defendant, he declined to participate in training offered by Jaysh Kalifa, ISIL’s “offensive group” who trained foreigners to return to their home countries and commit attacks.