In the midst of Omar Mateen’s shooting rampage in Orlando, law enforcement officials say the 30-year-old Florida resident called 911 and proclaimed his support for the Islamic State. Although FBI officials say they have not identified any direct connection between Mateen and the terrorist group, his case has once again brought calls for a harsh crackdown on individuals who might commit acts of domestic terrorism.
In the United States, 88 people have been arrested on charges of supporting ISIS since 2014, according to statistics compiled by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Who are they? Most are young, male, and American citizens. But in contrast to the Islamic State’s own propaganda, as well as the statements of many political figures, many of the U.S. supporters of ISIS come across as more pathetic than fearsome. While media reports have trumpeted the danger of sleeper cells, most of the people arrested by the FBI appear to have been wayward, isolated young men (and a few women) with little connection to international terrorist groups.
Recent coverage of the Orlando shooting has indicated that Mateen was motivated by homophobia and mental illness as much as any militant ideology; the FBI had investigated Mateen on two occasions and interviewed him but never pressed charges. The FBI’s handling of his case, along with its handling of the often-hapless people it does arrest on terrorism charges, shows the complexity and, perhaps, the impossibility of the task — trying to identify and imprison real terrorists before they commit acts of terrorism.
Using court documents, interviews, and Google images of major landmarks from their personal lives, The Intercept has constructed brief portraits of nine recent cases of “ISIS in America.”
For Mufid Elfgeeh, the internet was an escape. The 30-year-old spent his days working in a pizzeria in a bleak industrial area of Rochester, New York, living in a small attic above his business. He had lived alone in the United States since the age of 14, after his father left the country for Yemen. Temperamental and socially maladjusted, he spent his nights chatting with Islamic State supporters on Twitter, operating dozens of accounts for that purpose.
By 2013 his online activity had put him on the radar of the FBI. The following year, after a sting operation in which Elfgeeh was befriended by two government informants, he was arrested and charged with material support for terrorism. Shortly after his arrest, his pizzeria was partially destroyed in a fire.
Elfgeeh was described by those who knew him as a difficult and emotional man with few real friends. By the time of his arrest, the informants in the case had become the people he spent most of his free time with. In conversations with them, he mused about shooting soldiers and offered to help them travel to Syria with the aid of his online contacts.
On May 31, 2014, after his new friends successfully set up a gun deal for him, Elfgeeh was arrested.
He is now serving a 22-year sentence for material support of terrorism. His sentence is the longest given to anyone convicted of supporting ISIS in the United States.
After Nader Elhuzayel’s parents declared bankruptcy, the Crystal Inn motel in Anaheim, California, became their home. Elhuzayel, 25, lived there until his arrest in the summer of 2015. The government alleges he had attempted to travel abroad to join the Islamic State.
In his surveilled conversations, Elhuzayel evinced an overwhelming desire to leave Anaheim. Debating with a friend about where to go, he first chose Yemen, because “it was so beautiful.”
He expressed wishes to die and go to heaven by fighting with ISIS. Online, he connected with a Palestinian woman who also supported the group.
According to the criminal complaint against him, he and the woman “professed love for each other” and agreed to meet to get married. They discussed living on a farm together and raising children, while supporting ISIS “despite their parents’ opposition.”
On May 21, 2015, Elhuzayel was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport while attempting to board a one-way flight to Tel Aviv. He is currently on trial on charges of material support for terrorism and bank fraud.
For several months, Ali Shukri Amin crafted a terrifying image for himself as the most prominent American supporter of ISIS on Twitter. Under the name @AmreekiWitness, he sent thousands of messages in support of the group, disseminating its propaganda and even providing instructions on how to fund the organization with Bitcoin.
His offline persona was somewhat less imposing. Amin was a 17-year-old student at Osbourn Park High School in suburban Virginia. Physically impaired by Crohn’s disease, he spent hours alone on the internet. While outwardly living the life of a typical teenager, in private he developed a raging obsession with the Islamic State. When his best friend, 18-year-old Reza Niknejad, made his own plans to actually join the group, Amin helped drive him to the airport. Niknejad is believed to have made it to ISIS territory and remains at large today.
Amin was arrested in 2014. His estranged father, whom Amin had not seen in over a decade, traveled from the United Arab Emirates to attend his court hearings. His father would later tell the judge that his absence in Amin’s life had “created a spiritual wound” in his son — one that was ultimately filled by his online activities.
Last year, Amin pleaded guilty to one count of material support for terrorism. In a letter to the judge before his sentencing, Amin apologized for his actions and renounced his support for the group. “Developing these relationships became very important to me,” he wrote of his online audience, “because several of these ‘friends’ treated me with respect and occasionally reverence.”
Following his guilty plea, Amin was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Safya Roe Yassin was a resident of Buffalo, Missouri, a town of 3,000 people an hour’s drive north of Springfield. Neighbors knew Yassin, a single mother, as outspoken about conspiracy theories, including alleged links between autism and childhood vaccinations and the poisoning of the American public by “chemtrails.”
Sometime in 2014, a Facebook friend complained to the FBI about Yassin’s increasingly erratic online postings. She had begun posting messages in support of the Islamic State, although her sister described her to local media as a Christian. Alongside her Facebook activity, Yassin had been operating dozens of Twitter accounts.
According to a criminal complaint, on August 24, 2015, Yassin retweeted a message from another user that contained threats against U.S. government officials. As the complaint noted, “Her unrelenting support of ISIS/ISIL was patently obvious in her verbatim retweets.”
Yassin was taken into custody in February 2016 and charged with transmitting a threat. She has pleaded not guilty. She faces up to five years in prison.
On June 2, 2015, Usaama Rahim was shot and killed by a police officer in the parking lot of a pharmacy in Boston. A blurry video later released by the police purported to show Rahim approaching the officer in a threatening manner before he was killed. On his body, police found a hunting knife.
In the weeks following the shooting, the circumstances that led to Rahim’s death became the subject of intense scrutiny. FBI officials alleged that Rahim was a supporter of the Islamic State and had expressed his desire to kill a police officer. Rahim was the brother of a prominent local imam, and his family said that Rahim, an African-American, carried a knife for protection from local police. “As you all know, with the current slaughter of black men that’s going on across the nation, that’s enough to make any black man feel threatened,” a woman who identified herself as his aunt told reporters shortly after the shooting.
In their public accounting of the event, local and federal law enforcement claimed that Rahim had been under surveillance due to his online behavior. His social media activity, however, seemed contradictory. Despite “liking” an ISIS page on Facebook, he had also spoken out against extremist violence in the Middle East.
Earlier this year, two friends of Rahim’s who were also arrested at the time were charged with planning to support ISIS in the United States. They each face up to 20 years in prison.
Abror Habibov, 30, operated a chain of small cellphone and kitchenware kiosks in malls across the East Coast. He employed a 19-year-old named Akhror Saidakhmetov to help run his business. According to a criminal complaint, the government alleges that Habibov and Saidakhmetov began making plans for Saidakhmetov to travel to Syria, with Habibov acting as his funder.
The allegations came about after a lengthy investigation involving an undercover informant. The government alleges that Habibov bought tickets for Saidakhmetov and another man, 24-year-old Abdurasul Juraboev, to travel abroad and ultimately join ISIS. Their plans seemed to be poorly thought out, however — even fantastical. At one point, Saidakhmetov suggested to an undercover government informant that he would hijack the plane and give it to ISIS — so that “then they would have a plane.” When Saidakhmetov’s mother later confiscated his passport, the informant helped him fill out an application for a new one.
In surveilled conversations, Habibov raised doubts about the mental stability of his alleged co-conspirators, telling a third party, “Yes, I think [Juraboev] is normal. I am just saying … I don’t know.” Habibov was arrested in Florida on the same day that Juraboev and Saidakhmetov were detained in New York.
Habibov is now facing up to 15 years in prison on material support for terrorism charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
On the internet, Christopher Lee Cornell created a new persona for himself: Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah. The unemployed 20-year-old began tweeting support for ISIS in the summer of 2014, largely from his family home in suburban Cincinnati. In August of that year, he was contacted online by an individual working undercover for the government. According to the criminal complaint, that individual “began cooperating with the FBI in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case.”
Over the next few months, Cornell and the informant would continue communicating online, discussing their support for ISIS. In time, they’d talk about the possibility of conducting a terrorist attack on their own. The informant traveled to meet Cornell at a hotel, bringing their internet discussions a step closer to reality. In January 2015, Cornell was arrested by authorities after agreeing to purchase weapons, allegedly to further a terrorist plot.
The pale, long-haired 20-year-old was described by his parents as a “momma’s boy” who was bullied in his neighborhood and referred to his cat as his best friend. He had apparently converted to Islam only months before his arrest.
Members of the local Muslim community interviewed by the media appeared oblivious to him. Indeed, the only personal nexus he had with terrorism was the government’s own informant.
Cornell is in custody awaiting trial on charges of plotting to kill government officials and provide material support to ISIS. He has pleaded not guilty.
Before heading to the airport to board a flight bound for Turkey, Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla left farewell notes for their families. The young newlyweds had decided to leave the United States and start a new life in the territories controlled by the Islamic State.
On May 13, 2015, the 19-year-old Young came onto the radar of authorities after tweeting her desire to save money and travel to Syria. Through a pseudonymous Twitter account, she said that she was working overtime to save money for her trip and to get a passport to leave the country. Over the next several months, she conversed with a number of undercover FBI agents online with whom she developed travel plans for herself and Dakhlalla.
Officials in the case said that Young, a former high school cheerleader, had been the one to initiate the idea to travel abroad with Dakhlalla, whom she would later marry. The two were arrested while attempting to board a flight from a regional airport near their homes in Columbus, Mississippi.
In her farewell note, Young told her family that she was safe and not to look for her. This March, after her arrest, she pleaded guilty to one count of attempted material support. Young and Dakhlalla face up to 20 years in prison.
On March 26, 2014, 19-year-old John T. Booker checked himself in to a mental health facility. He had already been under the watch of the FBI after a series of social media postings praising attacks against U.S. soldiers. Over the next year and a half, Booker was befriended by two government informants. He told them about his desire to join ISIS and fight American troops. They provided him with information and material related to bomb making — and helped him plan an attack against a local military base in Kansas.
Booker was arrested before the plan ever came to fruition. The materials he was provided were inert, and the FBI had been tracking him long before his arrest. The circumstances of his case — in which the FBI evidently watched him check himself in to a mental health facility as a teenager and then proceeded to set up a sting — have led to speculation that Booker was a vulnerable individual who was entrapped by the government. Pictures of the chubby, bespectacled teenager seemed at odds with a hardened terrorist who informants said had been willing to kill himself in an explosion at the base.
Speaking to local media in Kansas after his son’s arrest, Booker’s father said, “Once kids turn 18 and graduate, parents have no control over them.”
Booker pleaded guilty to terrorism charges this year. He is awaiting sentencing. He faces up to 30 years in prison.