Mohamed Bailor Jalloh, the former Virginia National Guardsman arrested last week on charges of plotting to provide material support to the Islamic State, was manipulated by a government informant, his siblings say.
Jalloh was also mischaracterized by the government, the family members added, with innocent or thoughtless words twisted to make the 26-year-old naturalized citizen, originally from Sierra Leone, sound like a budding terrorist. Jalloh faces up to 20 years in prison.
“He is just another Mohamed that got set up,” his brother Chernor Jalloh told The Intercept. “He sympathizes with the oppressed abroad. … The FBI used his love for those being oppressed against him by inciting him in all manners that they deemed fit.”
A criminal complaint unsealed last week and widely publicized revealed that Jalloh had been speaking for months with a government informant, who recorded conversations in which Jalloh seemed to support acts of violence. The informant solicited Jalloh’s help in procuring money and weapons that he said would be used in support of ISIS. At one point, Jalloh was provided with a mobile messaging application to help him send $500 to an undercover FBI agent posing as an ISIS member abroad.
After Jalloh attempted to purchase a rifle at a local gun store, he was placed under arrest.
The government affidavit against Jalloh alleges that he had been radicalized by watching the lectures of former al Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki. But his family says that Jalloh was young and impressionable, and had been manipulated by his conversations with the government informant.
Chernor also said he believed his brother looked up to the informant as someone who was older and whose opinion should be respected. “He looked at him as an older brother with more knowledge about what is going on in the Middle East and was trying to understand their plight.”
The use of informants in FBI terrorism cases has become a source of controversy after several high-profile cases in which terrorism plots appeared to have been devised and propagated by the informants themselves. The FBI is believed to have at least 15,000 informants active in the United States.
While the full details of Jalloh’s interactions with the informant are not yet known, his family says the behavior linked by the government to terrorism is being mischaracterized.
Its unclear how long Jalloh had been under government surveillance. His conversations with the informant lasted several months, though reference is also made in the affidavit to a trip Jalloh took to Nigeria last year. Privacy advocates and whistleblowers have long warned that extended government surveillance could create “databases of ruin” about innocent people, whereby harmful or provocative statements are catalogued over time and then later contextualized in an incriminating manner.
Jalloh’s family claims that in his case, innocent actions and thoughtless words, or “tough talk,” are being conflated together by the government to paint a picture of him that is more nefarious than the reality.
“Mohamed was a military kid, he owned other guns before this all happened, and he generally bought and practiced with guns all the time anyways,” says Jalloh’s sister, Mariatu Jalloh. “He grew up here in Virginia and never thought of something like buying a gun as remarkable or suspicious.” She described Mohamed’s statements to the informant as an emotional response to incitement and said her brother engaged in tough talk to impress someone he respected.
“He was being manipulated by the informant into saying things he would never have otherwise,” she says.
“The government is taking statements and actions that had nothing to do with one another and putting them together to paint a certain picture. … They’re connecting dots.”