Boston Police Capt. Robert Ciccolo was one of the first responders to the Boston Marathon bombings. When his 23-year-old son, Alexander, who had converted to Islam and given himself the name Ali Al Amriki, began telling his father he was “not afraid to die for the cause,” Ciccolo became alarmed. Alexander had a history of mental illness, and his interest in Islam had become an obsession. In October 2014, Ciccolo contacted the FBI about his son.
The federal agents could have monitored Alexander, or perhaps confronted him. Instead, as the bureau does in most such cases, agents launched an investigation. They found Alexander’s Facebook page, listed under his nom de guerre. There was a photograph of a young man in a wooded area wearing a head covering and holding a machete. “Another day in the forest strengthening myself,” the caption read. Another photo on his Facebook page appeared to show a dead American soldier. “Thank you Islamic State!” read the caption.
As part of a sting, an FBI informant contacted Alexander and offered to provide him with guns for an attack. After Alexander collected the weapons on July 4, 2015, FBI agents arrested him and charged him with terrorism-related offenses. As he was being processed at a detention center, he stabbed a nurse with a pen, causing a minor injury. His case made national news, and FBI Director James Comey told reporters that Alexander Ciccolo’s was among several plots related to the Fourth of July holiday that were foiled by counterterrorism agents. “I do believe that our work disrupted efforts to kill people, likely in connection with July 4,” Comey told reporters during a July 7, 2015, briefing.
Alexander Ciccolo is among 63 men and women who have been arrested in FBI stings targeting ISIS sympathizers, according to an analysis of federal terrorism prosecutions by The Intercept.
Demonstrating the evolving threat of terrorism in the United States, alleged ISIS sympathizers are now the primary targets of FBI stings, upstaging Al Qaeda, the Shabab, and all other terrorist groups. The first ISIS case in the United States culminated in an arrest in March 2014, and the number quickly grew. Fifty-eight people were charged in 2015 for alleged ISIS affiliations. In 2016, 32 FBI cases involved ISIS sympathizers, compared to just one each that year involving Al Qaeda and Shabab sympathizers.
But as with earlier FBI stings that primarily targeted Al Qaeda sympathizers, most of the targets of the bureau’s ISIS stings are aspirational, not operational.
In the majority of ISIS stings, targets were not in direct contact with ISIS representatives and did not have weapons of their own, government evidence showed. Instead, these targets were inspired by online propaganda to join ISIS and either made arrangements on their own to travel to Syria or were aided by FBI informants or undercover agents in their attempts join ISIS or plot attacks inside the United States.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he refused to talk about the guns, but he defended ISIS as a just organization, even as he demonstrated his ignorance about the group. The FBI recorded the interview.
“ISIS claimed responsibility, right, for a lot of beheadings?” Ambrogio asked. “There’s someone who names himself Jihadi John and he beheads people, right? He does it in an online way so that people can see it. So what’s your feeling about that? They represent themselves as ISIS; they’re ISIS. What’s your feeling?”
“The people that you see being executed are criminals,” Alexander answered. “They’re criminals. They’re the lowest of the low.”
According to his family, Alexander, a high school dropout, had battled off and on with alcohol addiction. He was also admitted to a psychiatric institution when he was a teenager.
As a child, he went back and forth between the homes of his father, a stern cop who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and his mother, something of a free spirit. Alexander followed in his mother’s footsteps.
“I raised him Catholic; he was baptized Catholic,” said Shelley MacInnes, his mother. “He stayed with his Catholic beliefs for quite a long time. I would say he is a very religious person and very spiritual, but as he got older, I think he started searching.”
Alexander Ciccolo first gravitated toward Buddhism and spent time at the Grafton Peace Pagoda in Petersburgh, New York. In 2012, he and other members of the Peace Pagoda walked around Lake Ontario to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear power. A photograph from the time shows him wearing a green V-neck T-shirt and holding a handwritten sign that reads: “Peace walk for no more Fukushima.”
Shortly after, he returned to Massachusetts and announced that he would become a Muslim. “One day we were out having dinner, and he went to the bathroom,” MacInnes recalled. “He ran into an imam. … He was so excited. ‘Mom, you’re aren’t going to believe what just happened.’”
Alexander became fixated on Islam and ISIS, and he would talk often with his parents about his newfound beliefs. “He’s always been an investigator, never takes anything at face value,” MacInnes said. “As far as ISIS goes, my personal opinion is that he was investigating the validity of that organization, rather than taking the media’s answer for it.”
Following its sting playbook, the FBI introduced to Alexander an informant posing as an ISIS sympathizer. The informant and Alexander met for the first time in person on June 24, 2015. The young man told the informant that he wanted to travel to another state and use pressure cooker bombs to attack two bars and a police station. Over the course of a week, his plan changed from bombing bars and a police station to attacking a university. He boasted that he knew how to use sniper rifles and had grown up with guns. “I know what I’m doing,” he said.
But Alexander didn’t have any weapons, aside from a couple of machetes. His only would-be bomb components were a pressure cooker purchased from Wal-Mart and some half-made Molotov cocktails.
That’s where the FBI stepped in again. The undercover informant provided Alexander with two assault rifles and two handguns. As soon as Alexander took possession of the guns, FBI agents arrested him, charging him with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. He was also charged with being a felon in possession of firearms, owing to an earlier state conviction of driving under the influence.
Whether out of mental illness, immaturity, or naiveté, Alexander Ciccolo professed support for ISIS, but it’s unclear whether he would have posed a threat had the FBI informant not encouraged him and provided him with weapons. In this way, Ciccolo’s case is prototypical of ISIS stings.
In these cases, the FBI provides encouragement and capacity to otherwise hapless individuals.
For example, in a similar case in April 2016, the FBI arrested a South Florida man who allegedly plotted to bomb a Jewish community center. An FBI informant gave James Medina, a homeless man with a history of making baseless threats of violence, the opportunity. It was in fact the FBI informant who first came up with the idea of crediting their attack to ISIS. Farther north, in upstate New York, Emanuel L. Lutchman, another homeless man, told an FBI informant that he had received directions from an overseas ISIS member and was planning an attack, using a machete and knives, on a New Year’s Eve celebration in Rochester. The FBI’s informant provided the $40 Lutchman needed to purchase the machete and knives.
In other ISIS stings, the FBI has encouraged and helped to facilitate the international travel of would-be ISIS recruits. An example is the case of Jason Michael Ludke, a Milwaukee man who made contact with an FBI undercover employee through social media. The FBI undercover employee, pretending to be affiliated with ISIS, encouraged Ludke and his friend Yosvany Padilla-Conde to join the terrorist group. The pair drove from Wisconsin to Texas, where they were arrested. According to Padilla-Conde’s statements after the arrest, they were under the impression that the FBI undercover employee was going to assist them in crossing the border into Mexico and then traveling to Iraq or Yemen. Ludke and Padilla-Conde are facing charges of material support for terrorists.
The analysis of terrorism prosecutions by The Intercept shows that federal judges have wrestled with appropriate punishments for those convicted of ISIS-related terrorism offenses.
Some defendants who were arrested before they had an opportunity to travel to Syria have received relatively lenient sentences. Mohammed Hamzah Khan, of Bolingbrook, Illinois, was arrested as he attempted to board a flight to Turkey at O’Hare International Airport. He received about three years in prison. Shannon Maureen Conley, who lived in Colorado, received about four years after she was arrested at the airport in Denver, on her way to Turkey.
At the same time, defendants whose support for ISIS consisted of online activity, such as distributing propaganda on social media, have received comparable sentences to, and in some cases more prison time than, defendants who tried to join ISIS on the battlefield. Heather Elizabeth Coffman, of Glen Allen, Virginia, used several social media accounts to communicate with FBI informants posing as ISIS agents. She was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. Ali Shukri Amin, who also lived in Virginia, admitted that he operated a pro-ISIS Twitter account and blog and provided instructions to ISIS supporters on how to use Bitcoin to avoid currency transfer restrictions. He was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
But the most significant prison sentences await those who, like Alexander Ciccolo, moved forward with terrorist plots in the United States, even if it was the FBI making them possible. Christopher Cornell, of Cincinnati, Ohio, plotted with an FBI informant to travel to Washington, D.C., and attack the U.S. Capitol. He was arrested as he was leaving a gun store. After pleading guilty to terrorism-related charges, Cornell was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Lutchman, who was involved in the purported plans to attack a New Year’s Eve celebration in upstate New York, pleaded guilty to material support and received a 20-year prison sentence.
It’s still too early to establish conclusive trends about the sentencing of ISIS defendants in U.S. District Courts. Of the 110 ISIS defendants charged, only 45 have been sentenced.
Yet the arrests of ISIS sympathizers continue at a steady clip, even when the targets of stings have proven themselves to be incompetent ISIS recruits.
An example is Mohamed Rafik Naji, of New York, who attempted five times to travel to ISIS territory but never made it. That’s when an FBI informant, posing as an ISIS affiliate, contacted him through Facebook.
The informant told him that ISIS needed someone to attack Times Square with a garbage truck. “I was saying if there is a truck, I mean a garbage truck, and one drives it there to Times Square and crushes them,” Naji told the informant, repeating the idea. Naji was indicted in November 2016 on a charge of material support for terrorists, the 93rd person to be charged in federal court in an ISIS-related case.
Alexander Ciccolo is now undergoing psychological evaluation; his trial is pending. MacInnes, Ciccolo’s mother, believes he was an impressionable young man manipulated by the FBI and set up with weapons that he never could have obtained on his own. “I don’t think he even knew what his plan was,” MacInnes said.