The news spread quickly when federal prosecutors announced on Tuesday night that FBI agents had foiled an Islamic State-linked plot to bomb a beach in Key West, Florida.
The alleged attacker, 23-year-old Cuban-American Harlem Suarez, also known as Almlak Benitez, hardly looks the part of an Islamic State fighter.
In a selfie posted on Facebook, Suarez has closed-cropped brown hair and tattoos that cover his right arm, left shoulder and chest. He wears a Batman T-shirt and a sleeveless hoodie.
The U.S. government alleges that Suarez conspired with an FBI informant and undercover agents to bomb a stretch of beach in Key West. The FBI affidavit supporting the criminal complaint portrays Suarez as a bumbler who lived with his parents — not an uncommon description for targets of FBI counterterrorism stings.
Indeed, in Suarez’s case no sophisticated surveillance operation was necessary: Suarez came to the attention of a law enforcement agency simply because he announced his support for the Islamic State online.
On April 8, an unidentified individual went to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office because he had received a friend request from Suarez, who had written, among other things, on his Facebook page: “We are the islamic state We are isis Muslims” and “We are you behad cristians isis.”
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office referred the tip to the FBI. In May, an FBI informant friended Suarez on Facebook. Suarez, who had posted a number of ISIS videos and statements to his Facebook page, allegedly told the informant in an online chat that he had two guns, and was looking for a rifle and a bulletproof vest.
In a phone conversation, according to the affidavit, Suarez told the informant that he had “thought about traveling to the Middle East and that he had been trying to contact someone from Syria.” In the FBI document, there is no confirmation, or even suggestion, that Suarez had been in contact with a member of the Islamic State.
With Suarez, the FBI followed its sting playbook to a tee. The informant recorded Suarez making video, as occurred in the sting involving Sami Osmakac, a mentally ill Albanian-American from Florida who was also caught up in a counterterrorism sting.
In the video, Suarez wore a black tactical vest, black shirt, black face mask and a yellow and black scarf. “I call to other brothers worldwide to create a caliphate in the Middle East,” Suarez had written in his video script, according to the affidavit. “Destroy our enemies against us.”
A couple of weeks later, on June 3, the informant introduced Suarez to an undercover FBI agent, who was posing as an Islamic State operative who could supply explosive devices. Suarez allegedly talked of an attack on July 4 in Marathon, Florida, or in Miami Beach.
“They would know that, you know, it’s coming from Islamic State,” Suarez allegedly said.
The Independence Day plot didn’t happen, of course. It’s unclear why, from the FBI affidavit. There is some suggestion that Suarez had cold feet. The undercover agent had to ask Suarez in a phone conversation on July 13 if he was playing games, according to the affidavit.
“No, I don’t,” Suarez answered. “I’m not playing no games.”
The agent then asked if Suarez if he was “true to the Islamic State.”
A one-word answer followed: “Yeah.”
The first undercover agent introduced Suarez to a second agent, a supposed bomb maker for the Islamic State. On July 27, Suarez met with the second undercover agent in Key West and accepted from him what he believed was a backpack bomb. In truth, the device was inert. FBI agents then arrested Suarez, and he was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
One of Suarez’s former co-workers on a hotel cleaning staff told the local newspaper he was a “a little slow.”
Suarez is the latest man to be arrested as part of an increased push to nab Islamic State sympathizers in FBI counterterrorism stings. These stings, like the ones over the previous decade that targeted so-called lone wolf Qaeda sympathizers, are catching people of questionable capacity who may not even be in contact with the Islamic State. Some of these recent targets have been described as mentally ill.
In Suarez’s case, it’s questionable whether he could have moved a terrorism plot forward were it not for the FBI. When he tried on his own to purchase an AK-47 using his real name and address, according to the FBI affidavit, the seller turned him away.
The reason: Suarez was incompetent. He had filled out the paperwork incorrectly.