The FBI Wednesday announced the arrest of three men it alleges planned to help the Islamic State, news that at first appeared to confirm fears that radical extremism is spreading to the United States.
“The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies,” U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a press release announcing the arrests. “We will vigorously prosecute those who attempt to travel to Syria to wage violent jihad on behalf of ISIL and those who support them.”
Left unmentioned in the FBI statement, however, is the integral role a paid informant appears to have played in generating the charges against the men, and helping turn a fantastical “plot” into something even remotely tangible. It appears that none of the three men was in any condition to travel or support the Islamic State, without help from the FBI informant.
On Feb. 25, two Brooklyn men were arrested following FBI and New York Police Department anti-terror raids and charged with providing “material support” to the Islamic State. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, and Akhror Saidakhmetov 19, are alleged to have made arrangements to travel to Syria, and also to have expressed willingness to conduct attacks in the United States “if ordered to do so” by the group. A third man, Abror Habibov, 30, was arrested in Florida and charged with helping provide financial support for their travel plans.
According to the criminal complaint against the three, the FBI first began investigating Juraboev after he made postings on Uzbek-language social media sites in August 2014 praising the Islamic State and offering to pledge allegiance to them. While these postings were made anonymously, Juraboev neglected to conceal his IP address which led to him being quickly identified by authorities.
On Aug. 15, 2014, Juraboev was visited at a Brooklyn residence by FBI agents; he openly expressed his desire to join Islamic State to them. He is said to have told the agents he desired to travel and join the group, but that “he currently lacked the means to go there.” Juraboev is also said to have told the FBI agents in this interview of his desire to kill President Obama, but stated that he does not have any “means or imminent plans to do so.”
Three days after that initial visit, FBI agents visited him again; he reiterated these violent and criminal desires, stating his willingness to kill President Obama if he were ordered to do so by any member of Islamic State, and also telling the agents he was willing to “plant a bomb on Coney Island if so ordered by ISIL”.
In the interviews, Juraboev also mentioned Saidakhmetov, 19, as someone who shared his basic views and desire to travel to areas controlled by the Islamic State. Transcripts of a recorded conversation between the two in mid-September show them apparently expressing their desire to travel to Syria via Istanbul, and trying to determine logistics of the trip. Juraboev also apparently communicated at this time with people online to discuss the feasibility of traveling to Syria and joining the Islamic State.
Shortly after this, the FBI introduced them to a confidential informant, who “approached Juraboev at a mosque, while posing as an ideologically sympathetic individual, and met Saidakhmetov the same day.” The informant befriended the two men, who told him of their desire to go to Syria. According to the criminal complaint, the informant was paid for his services and was perceived by the defendants to be an “older and more experienced person.”
In a recorded discussion on Sept. 24, Saidakhmetov told the informant his plans had been halted as his mother had taken his passport away to prevent him from traveling. A transcript of this discussion describes the informant suggesting possible routes that Saidakhmetov could take to reach Syria, after which the two went to watch videos of Islamic State training camps together.
Over the next several months the informant evidently developed a relationship of trust with both Juraboev and Saidakhmetov, even possibly moving into an apartment with Juraboev, and convincing both of them that he intended to travel to Syria and join Islamic State. During this time, other ideas were also floated, including potentially joining the U.S. Army to become double agents, something that was ultimately dismissed as impractical.
Though Juraboev in his initial FBI interviews said he lacked the financial means to travel, he obtained, after meeting the informant, enough money to purchase tickets for airfare to Istanbul near the end of 2014. Saidakhmetov, whose passport had been confiscated by his mother, at one point asked the informant to help him fill out new travel documents and even forge his signature, which the informant “advised Saidakhmetov [he] did”.
Juraboev and Saidakhmetov then made arrangements to travel to Turkey and from there cross the border into Syria. Throughout this time, they continued to believe that the informant was also buying tickets and traveling with them to join the Islamic State.
Habibov, the oldest defendant at age 30, is alleged to have provided funds to pay for Saidakhmetov’s trip and to have inquired about the potential of finding further support for him once he arrived in Syria. Habibov also is alleged to have asked about the potential of providing contacts for “another brother who appears to be smarter” but who also lacks connections. This “smarter brother,” as the complaint indicates, is in fact a reference to the FBI informant.
Despite his efforts, there is no indication Habibov succeeded in procuring any contacts for either of the travelers.
Saidakhmetov was arrested on Feb. 25 at JFK airport in New York as he arrived to board his flight to Istanbul. In the run-up to his arrest, he had also allegedly proposed a plan to gain control cockpit and “[divert] the plane to the Islamic State, so that the Islamic State would gain a plane.” Juraboev, not scheduled to leave for Turkey until March 29, and Habibov, were also arrested on the same day at separate locations.
Since the time that FBI agents first made contact with Juraboev in August 2014, a total of seven months elapsed until the arrests were made. During this time, the group stayed under close surveillance, and an informant was introduced who was evidently older and considered to be “more experienced” by the defendants.
Crucially, it appears that only after the introduction of the informant did any actual arrangements to commit a criminal act come into existence.
It stands to reason that during this extended time period, particularly after a seemingly unhinged Juraboev openly expressed his violent and criminal fantasies to FBI agents, other tactics of intervention could have been taken to prevent he and Saidakhmetov from going down this path.
The covert informant under the direction of the FBI evidently helped encourage the two toward terrorism over the course of these months. Instead of dissuading them, the informant went so far as to watch recruitment videos with the 19-year old Saidakhmetov and help him make his travel documents.
A 2011 study conducted by Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley found that of 508 post-9/11 terrorism defendants, “Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money,” with operatives being paid as much as $100,000 per assignment. Of the sting operations that resulted in terrorism arrests, nearly a third are believed to have been led by an agent provocateur in the employ of the FBI.
In one conversation recorded in the criminal complaint, Habibov asked an unnamed third party about Juraboev’s mental state. “Yes, I think he is normal. I am just saying . . . I don’t know,” the unnamed person responded. “He didn’t take any precautions. He just blurted out without hesitation.”