Terrorism Trials & Investigations
Prosecutions of International Terrorist Supporters Continue: Winter 2019 Update
A recent U.N. report warned about both the continued threat posed by Islamic State fighters and the challenges related to the effective prosecution of returned fighters and those who are financing terrorism.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice continues to prosecute individuals involved in terrorism in a number of ways. These new proceedings included charges against an individual who is already incarcerated and a successful push to denaturalize a man convicted of terror charges in advance of his release late this year. More broadly, the Justice Department continues to lodge new complaints against Americans who have supported the Islamic State, and courts continue to sentence or convict these individuals. In one case, this included an individual who was sentenced to 30 years on a material support charge—substantially more than 13.5 years, the average sentence for material support in 2019.
Here, we provide an update on recent international terrorism prosecutions in the U.S. and highlight new and ongoing cases, 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 October 2019, six individuals have been arrested and indicted on charges relating to alleged crimes in support of or inspired by the Islamic State. Notably, recent Justice Department indictments have made clear that the Islamic State is continuing to attract Americans to attempt to join the group in Syria. Two Americans from Connecticut were arrested after failed attempts to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. In December 2019, Ahmad Khalil Elshazly, a 22-year-old from West Haven, Connecticut, was charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. Elshazly was arrested while attempting to board a boat that he was allegedly hoping would put him en route to Turkey to eventually end up in Syria. Elshazly had made numerous statements in support of the Islamic State, discussed traveling to the caliphate to “fight” and “kill,” and had sent a series of YouTube videos about various high-powered firearms to undercover agents who he believed were conspiring with him. Kevin Iman McCormick, a 26-year-old from Hamden, Connecticut, was arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State after trying to travel to Syria to fight for the group. During his first attempt to travel, McCormick was prevented from boarding a flight from Connecticut to Jamaica (he had planned to travel to the Middle East from Jamaica) by the Department of Homeland Security but was not arrested immediately. Nine days after his initial attempt, he made a video declaring allegiance to the Islamic State and its former leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and purchased a plane ticket from Canada to Jordan. Two days later, McCormick was arrested after he traveled to a small airport in Connecticut where he sought to board a flight to Canada. Although both defendants are from Connecticut, there is no indication that they knew each other.
Two individuals were arrested since our last update for allegedly encouraging other Islamic State adherents to plan attacks and disseminating instructional material to support the would-be attackers. On Nov. 27, 2019, Zachary Clark, a 40-year-old from Brooklyn, was arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and distributing information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction. In addition to allegedly pledging allegiance to the Islamic State twice in 2019, Clark allegedly disseminated Islamic State propaganda, called for supporters to commit lone-wolf attacks in New York City, and distributed detailed instructions on how to commit such attacks. These instructions included a manual titled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” which detailed how to construct an explosive device, according to the criminal complaint.
Romeo Xavier Langhorne, a 30-year-old from Roanoke, Virginia, was also allegedly involved in producing instructional material in support of the group. The government alleges that, in February 2019, Langhorne started communicating with an undercover agent about his plans to create and disseminate an instructional video on making a deadly explosive (triacetone triperoxide, also known as TATP). Langhorne allegedly made the video with the agent’s help and posted it to a video-sharing website. On Dec. 5, he was indicted for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State.
By contrast, only one individual was arrested for actually planning an Islamic State-inspired attack. Salman Rashid, a 23-year-old from North Miami Beach, Florida, was arrested and charged with soliciting another person to commit a crime of violence. Rashid allegedly solicited an individual to contact members of the Islamic State and instruct them to conduct a terrorist attack on his behalf. Rashid allegedly asked the individual to target two deans at two different colleges from which Rashid had been suspended or expelled for using explosive devices.
Finally, one individual was arrested for attempting to provide financial support to the Islamic State overseas. On Nov. 15, 2019, Jason Brown, aka Abdul Ja’Me, the alleged leader of the AK Chicago street gang, was arrested for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. The criminal complaint alleges that, on three separate occasions over the course of 2019, Brown provided $500 in cash to an individual who he believed was wiring the money to a person involved in active combat with the Islamic State in Syria.
Islamic State Convictions and Guilty Pleas
In addition to those charged, three individuals were convicted of offenses related to the Islamic State during this period. Two of those individuals pleaded guilty and one was found guilty by a jury.
One defendant was already a federal inmate at the time of his recent conviction. On Dec. 13, 2019, Mohamed Ibrahim Ahmed, an Ethiopian national born in Eritrea who was already serving time for other terrorism charges, was found guilty of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and making a false statement to the FBI. Ahmed was serving out an 111-month sentence in the Federal Correctional Institute in Beaumont, Texas, for a 2013 conviction in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York of one count of conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabab and one count of conspiring to receive military-type training from al-Shabab. In November 2009, he was arrested in Nigeria and transferred to U.S. custody (Bobby Chesney discussed this case while it was ongoing). Ahmed continued his activities while in prison by recruiting at least five other inmates to join the Islamic State and conduct attacks after their release, including one plot to bomb the Federal Detention Center in New York City. Ahmed provided these potential recruits with a training manual on how to carry out violent jihad and held physical training exercises in the prison yard to get them in shape to carry out the terror attacks. Amhed’s 2019 trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas lasted seven days. The jury acquitted the defendant of two other charges concerning false statements. Ahmed’s recent conviction raises questions about the dangers of radicalization in American prisons. Although several studies in the last decade have studied in-prison radicalization, the results remain inconclusive.
On Nov. 26, 2019, Samantha Marie Elhassani joined the handful of Americans who have been captured on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, transferred to U.S. custody, and then charged and convicted for their support of the Islamic State. The Kurdish authorities captured Elhassani and her four children as they were attempting to flee Syria in early 2018 and ultimately transferred them to U.S. custody in July 2018. Elhassani pleaded guilty to providing financial support to individuals who desired to support the Islamic State. Elhassani admitted to traveling overseas with more than $30,000 in cash and gold to be used by her husband and brother-in-law to join and support the group in Syria.
Finally, on Dec. 10, 2019, Nihad Rosic pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide material support and one count of providing material support. Rosic was part of a larger network of Bosnian nationals living in America who worked together to send money and gear to another Bosnian American national, Abdullah Ramo Pazara, who was fighting with the Islamic State in Syria. Rosic also communicated with Pazara about Rosic’s plans to travel to Syria and join Pazara in combat. Two other individuals charged in the same indictment were both sentenced last year to between five and seven years in prison. Rosic’s sentencing hearing is set for April 16.
Islamic State Sentencing
Three individuals who had previously been convicted of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State were sentenced in the past three months. There was more variance in the sentencing lengths than we have seen during past periods, but this may be merely the result of the wide variety of charges levied against the defendants during this period.
On Dec. 6, 2019, Sajmir Alimehmeti, aka Abdul Qawii, was sentenced to 22 years in prison based on convictions for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and attempting to fraudulently procure a U.S. passport to facilitate an act of international terrorism. Alimehmeti had a slew of failed attempts to travel to the region to join the Islamic State, and when those attempts failed, he tried to help others travel there. Alimehmeti was undeterred by his own incarceration. While awaiting trial in 2017, he worked with another Islamic State adherent, Ahmad Khan Rahimi, to distribute terrorist propaganda to other inmates, demonstrating another instance of those convicted of terror-related crimes using prisons to radicalize fellow inmates.
Another member of the same network of Bosnian nationals that included Nihad Rosic, the man described in the previous section, was sentenced during this period. Ramiz Zijad Hodzic was sentenced to 96 months in prison for conspiring to provide material support and providing material support. Hodzic received a longer sentence than his three co-defendants who have already been sentenced; Jasminka Ramic, Mediha Medy Alkicevic and Armin Harcevic were sentenced to 36, 78 and 60 months in prison, respectively.
Finally, a 42-year-old man from Dallas, Texas, received the longest sentence during this period, among those convicted on terror-related charges. Said Azzam Mohamad Rahim was convicted 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 used social media to recruit fighters, tried to travel to the region, and then lied to federal investigators about his support for the group.
Defendants who supported a number of other groups have been charged, pleaded guilty and been sentenced in the past few months. The Justice Department also secured the denaturalization of one individual who is incarcerated in connection with a 2003 conviction for providing material support to al-Qaeda.
In January, Mimi Ould Baba, a Malian citizen, was charged with the murder of a U.S. citizen and for conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Murabitoun, an organization affiliated with al-Qaeda in Mali. The charges center around attacks in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast in 2016. The attacks killed Michael Riddering, an American citizen, and 48 others. Baba is in Malian custody, pending investigation and prosecution by Mali.
Demetrius Nathaniel Pitts pleaded guilty in November 2019 to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and for making threats against the president and the president’s family. This month, he was sentenced to 15 years for these charges, which stem from his plotting to stage an attack on the Fourth of July in Cleveland in support of al-Qaeda.
On Jan. 22, Jesus Wilfredo Encarnacion pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT). Encarnacion was arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport in February 2019. Encarnacion was on his way to Pakistan to join LeT. He will be sentenced later this year.
Ali Kourani was sentenced to 40 years in prison and five years of supervised release on Dec. 3, 2019, for his work for the Islamic Jihad Organization, a component of Hezbollah. As the New York Times has reported, Kourani has argued that he only had a political, not operational, role with Hezbollah and that he was seeking to cooperate with the government. Prosecutors claimed that Kourani underwent weapons training in Lebanon and received instructions from Hezbollah to find weapons suppliers in the U.S. Prosecutors in his case sought a life sentence and alleged that he repeatedly lied to law enforcement. He was found guilty last May after a jury trial.
On Jan. 9, Asia Siddiqui was sentenced to 15 years in prison for charges relating to her plans to build a bomb for use in a terrorist attack in the U.S. inspired by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Siddiqui pleaded guilty in August 2019. Her co-defendant, Noelle Velentzas, also pleaded guilty but has not yet been sentenced.
On Jan. 23, Mustafa al-Imam was sentenced to 19 years and eight months of prison for his role in the Benghazi, Libya, attacks on Sept. 11, 2010. He was captured in Libya in 2017 and found guilty in June 2019. This case has had important implications for the detention of enemy combatants. Al-Imam was captured abroad and successfully prosecuted in federal civilian courts rather than in military commissions. This success comes despite campaign statements from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump that new cases of this nature would be instituted at Guantanamo.
And on Jan. 28, Francisco Joseph Arcila Ramirez (Arcila), a Colombian national and resident of South Florida, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for providing material support to the National Liberation Army (ELN), a paramilitary group operating in South America and a designated foreign terrorist organization. Arcila was involved in selling firearms to an ELN weapons broker in Columbia in 2018. He pleaded guilty to providing material support in October 2019.
Finally, Iyman Faris, who is currently incarcerated after being convicted in 2003 of providing and conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaeda, had his naturalization revoked in February 2020. In granting the government’s motion for summary judgment, the judge found that the government had demonstrated Faris merited denaturalization by meeting its burden to prove that Faris’s membership in al-Qaeda meant that he could not be sufficiently loyal to the United States, that he was illegally naturalized because he was not a lawful permanent resident, and that he gave false testimony and therefore both obtained his naturalization illegally and lacked good moral character. As a result, he will be subject to removal proceedings upon his release, which is projected to be in August 2020. Observers should watch to see whether the government moves to denaturalize others incarcerated on terror charges, as the government confronts the reality that individuals who were convicted of terrorism-related offenses at the beginning of the millennium have begun to leave prison.