Harlem Suarez was an unlikely jihadi.
When he was born in Cuba, Suarez had blue skin. His fragile brain had been deprived of oxygen, a tragedy his family points to in explaining his lifelong social and intellectual challenges. As a child, Suarez also suffered several significant head injuries, including being struck by a brick and falling off motorcycles without a helmet on. His parents brought him to Key West, Florida, in 2004, when he was 12 years old. He struggled in the public education system and dropped out of high school. He then took odd jobs in Key West — stocking store shelves, cleaning up restaurants, working in kitchens. Even after more than a decade in the United States, he spoke English without confidence.
In 2015, seeing reports about the Islamic State on cable news, Suarez became intrigued by the terrorist group, he explained to an FBI informant. He was 23 years old at the time and still living in Key West. He was slender and fit, with tattoos covering his chest, stomach, and arms. He wore his brown hair cropped close to his scalp, and a goatee covered the bottom of his chin.
Suarez began to identify as Muslim and gave himself an Arabic name: Almlak Alaswd, which translates to “dark angel.” He said he wanted to be part of ISIS, but he knew little about the group or its rival organizations. He thought Osama bin Laden had founded ISIS, and he admitted to an FBI informant that he didn’t know what Hamas was or how the group was different from ISIS.
Suarez created a Facebook profile and began posting ISIS propaganda and videos. He seemed to be searching for ISIS members in his ignorant attempt to become one. Facebook had already taken down four of Suarez’s previous profiles for improper content; each time, Suarez just created a new one and continued to post ISIS material. His online activity attracted the FBI’s attention, and an agent in Miami asked a rookie informant named Mohammed Skaik to help determine if Suarez might be a threat.
A U.S. military officer in the inactive reserves, Skaik was born in the Middle East and moved to the U.S. at age 16. He was fluent in Arabic, his first language, and he spoke English with a flawless American accent. When the FBI recruited Skaik in late 2014, he was a research assistant at a Florida medical school, and he had ambitions to study to be a doctor. The FBI offered what was essentially a part-time gig posing online as a man sympathetic to and interested in ISIS.
Following FBI instructions, Skaik sent Suarez a Facebook friend request. “Hey, brother, can you add me, please?” Skaik wrote. “I have something extremely important to communicate to you.”
Suarez accepted the friend request. On his profile, Suarez said he lived in Miami. Skaik was just north in West Palm Beach, so not knowing that Suarez was actually in Key West, the informant assumed he and Suarez were practically neighbors.
“It’s good to see someone around here that lives nearby me,” Skaik wrote on Facebook. “A word of advice: I’ve been down your alley and got my accounts taken down numerous times. I would be very careful not to post things onto my account relating to my location. Just an advice from a brother to another. I hope to get to know you.”
Suarez replied by sending Skaik his cellphone number, and they began to exchange text messages. Suarez explained that he wasn’t in Miami but was instead “more down,” referring to the Florida Keys to the south.
“I have a car,” Skaik texted. “We can go to the mosque and train together.”
“I was trying to make timers bomb,” Suarez told him.
The message startled Skaik, he later told a jury. He didn’t anticipate that Suarez would so readily disclose his attempts to a build a bomb. Skaik sent a message to his FBI handler, and Suarez quickly became a priority. Within days, Skaik was making the four-hour drive to Key West. He and Suarez first met in the parking lot of Japanese steakhouse chain Benihana. Suarez drove up on a black and white Yamaha moped. He was wearing black sunglasses and a black, long-sleeve, button-down shirt. “How you doing?” Suarez said, greeting Skaik. Still seated on his moped, Suarez gave the informant a hug. “You really are driving a moped,” Skaik said with surprise.
He and Skaik walked to a wooded area near the Key West airport. Once they were in a secluded spot, Suarez opened his bag and showed off his equipment. He had two body armor vests. He had a handgun. “I show you one of these, brother,” he told Skaik, who secretly videotaped the encounter. “I’ve been getting ready, boy. This shit cost a lot of money.” He then pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle.
Suarez’s small arsenal seemed to confirm the FBI’s initial concerns. But there were also early indications that Suarez might have been more of an aimless big talker than a violent jihadi. He was not familiar with Dabiq, the ISIS magazine that had become essential reading for wannabe ISIS members, and he wasn’t watching ISIS propaganda videos on the dark web but instead on CNN. When the informant asked him how he communicated with people overseas, suggesting that encrypted methods would be most appropriate, Suarez was stumped and seemed to know nothing about encryption.
“Do you use, like, WhatsApp?” the FBI informant asked.
“Well, I use Facebook,” Suarez replied. “I was trying to use, um, how you call this thing — Tweeter?”
“Twitter,” Skaik corrected.
Suarez admitted that he didn’t have a plan of attack, and he also was under the impression that ISIS members had been flowing into the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border by the hundreds with the help of drug cartels. “We ain’t alone, you know?” he told Skaik with authority. “But it’s, it’s hard to find another of us, like — I don’t know why.”
Suarez’s research skills left a lot to be desired. He told the informant there wasn’t a mosque in Key West. (There was one, about 5 miles from his apartment.) And he seemed to know little about Islam. (“I heard that you cannot, you cannot, um, eat pork, right?” he asked Skaik.)
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI’s top priority has been to stop attacks in the U.S. before they occur. The bureau’s primary tool has been a policy of preemption, with undercover agents and informants looking for would-be terrorists before they have the opportunity to strike. Sting operations, in which agents or informants lead targets right up to the brink of a supposed attack and then arrest them, are the hallmarks of the FBI’s preemption policy. Since September 2001, nearly 300 people have been arrested and indicted following terrorism stings in which the FBI provided the means and opportunity necessary for the terrorist plot. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that many of these cases resulted in prosecutions against “individuals who perhaps would never have participated in a terrorist act on their own initiative.”
Following that report, as ISIS gained territory in the Middle East and began to distribute its propaganda widely over the internet and with a greater level of sophistication than Al Qaeda had exhibited, the FBI in 2015 refocused much of its counterterrorism resources inside the U.S. on ISIS — on so-called lone wolves who, inspired by ISIS propaganda, move forward with attacks on their own. FBI officials point to Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in June 2016, as an example of a successful ISIS lone wolf. To date, 66 ISIS sympathizers have been arrested following FBI stings, some for plotting attacks like Mateen’s and others for conspiring to travel to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS proper.
Suarez presented a conundrum for the FBI. He said he wanted to join ISIS, even though his understanding of the group and its religion was rudimentary. He was actively looking for likeminded people, even though he admitted he wasn’t finding any. He had body armor vests, even though he didn’t have the armored plates that slip inside. He had weapons, including an assault rifle, even though he admitted he didn’t have much ammunition.
“What would you do in a situation like that?” said Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who headed the field office in Buffalo, New York. “Would you want to be the agent who let this guy go, and then you find out later that he killed people in some attack?”
It’s a valid question. But as the FBI aggressively investigated Suarez, the government’s case turned on its head, with Suarez quickly transforming from the potential hunter into the very real hunted.
Skaik introduced the young man to two undercover agents who played the parts of hardened ISIS members. One claimed to be military-trained; the other said he was a professional bomb maker. Suarez, who realized too late that he was playing with fire in exploring his naive curiosity about ISIS, tried to back out in passive ways, the FBI’s evidence showed. He didn’t return calls and was consistently hard to reach. When the FBI agents asked for money to build a bomb, Suarez claimed to be broke, though he would later say he had $4,000 in the bank. Instead of participating in a bomb plot on the Fourth of July holiday, as he’d discussed with undercover agents, Suarez dodged their calls and instead went out drinking in Key West.
But Suarez was worried about consequences. Skaik knew where Suarez and his parents lived, and Suarez had no reason to doubt these men were from the murderous group he’d been hearing about on cable news. He didn’t know how to get out of the situation he’d created. “I was worried about my parents’ life,” Suarez later told a jury. Suarez said he had concocted a plan to protect himself and his family. If these ISIS guys wanted him to plant a bomb, he’d take that bomb to an isolated beach and detonate it. No one would die; no one would get hurt. He’d fulfill his obligation and protect his family. But it didn’t work out that way.
Over a period of about two weeks, Suarez and Skaik spoke by phone a half-dozen times after meeting in person in Key West. Their rough plan was to film a video for ISIS, post it online, and then launch some sort of bomb attack on the Fourth of July. Skaik said he had an ISIS contact who could provide the bomb.
But while Suarez never outright rebuffed Skaik’s prodding to make a video and move forward with an attack, he was much more concerned about grinding out his day-to-day existence. “I’m kind of like getting stressed out because no job, and bills, bills, they’re still coming and coming,” Suarez told Skaik. Suarez was so hard up that he’d fenced his assault rifle, which he owned legally, to a pawnshop. Suarez was apologetic, because he and Skaik had discussed how he’d hold the AR assault rifle in the ISIS video they were to make. But the hiccup didn’t concern the FBI informant.
“Well, that’s OK,” Skaik said. “Then you can, I mean, you can … hold my rifle then. It’s not a big deal.”
In FBI stings, informants often develop close relationships with their targets, either as father figures or close friends. Suarez’s conversations with Skaik suggested the Key West man was lonely, heartbroken, and had few friends. He confided in Skaik that he and his girlfriend had recently broken up after he’d suggested that they have a threesome with her female friend. “She told me that she’s not like that kinda type of (sic) girl,” Suarez told him. He later heard that his ex-girlfriend was in another relationship. “I should not care, ’cause, you know, we wasn’t together, but like, you know, I really, like, love her, you know what I’m saying?”
Skaik responded by lavishing Suarez with praise. He told Suarez that he wanted to join ISIS and always figured he’d have to travel to Syria to do it. Until he’d met Suarez, he said, he’d never imagined he could be an ISIS member here in the United States.
“When I met you, I knew there was something about you,” Skaik told Suarez by phone. “You know, like, I knew that I don’t have to go overseas; I knew you were the real deal, you know, like, I was like, ‘This guy, he’s a leader, he’s a fantastic leader.’ I think you are, man.”
Suarez was similarly effusive about their bromance. “It’s not just me; it’s me and you, you know. We are the brain, and we’re gonna be the bosses, you know; it’s me and you together, you know. You know what I’m saying, like, I cannot do this without you either, you know?”On May 23, 2015, Suarez and Skaik met at a Knights Inn hotel in Homestead, just south of Miami. Skaik brought the video camera. As they were setting up, Skaik asked Suarez what his latest thoughts were about their Fourth of July bombing plans. As usual, Suarez’s ideas were half-baked.
“So are we gonna do anything in Key West? Like on the Fourth of July? Is there a lot stuff that goes on over there?” Skaik asked.
“We cannot do — we must do it, like, around here. Homestead.”
“Homestead?” Skaik asked, surprised.
“Yeah, close in the, you know, middle, middle,” Suarez answered.
“Gotcha. What’s in Homestead?”
“I don’t know,” Suarez admitted.
For the video, Suarez dressed in all black and wore a ski mask that covered everything but his eyes. He also wore one of his body armor vests (he still didn’t have the armored plates) and a black and yellow scarf around his neck. Sitting on the floor of the hotel room, a white wall behind him, Suarez read from a rough script that he and Skaik had come up with over lunch at Burger King. Skaik aimed the video camera.
“All right, let’s, let’s try to do one without the paper,” Suarez said, referring to the script.
“OK,” Skaik said.
“Let’s see how, how it goes.”
Suarez then cleared his throat and Skaik began the countdown: “Three, two, one —”
“I call to all my brothers worldwide to come to USA soil,” Suarez said, beginning his monologue. “Brought your weapons, AK, grenades, bring all your tanks. Shit, hold on. Fuck.”
“OK, you wanna redo it?” Skaik asked.
“Yeah,” Suarez said.
Skaik started the countdown again: “Three, two, one —”
“I call to all my brothers in the worldwide,” Suarez said. “Stand up for our right, our Muslims’ right. Brought your AK and shoot everyone against us. This is the time to fight for the caliphate and create the entire worldwide caliphate.” Suarez paused. “Well?” he asked.
“Good. All right, we recorded this one,” Skaik said. “That’s perfect.”
The FBI had their jihadi video. Now agents needed a bomb plot.
On June 3, 2015, Skaik traveled again to Key West, this time with his supposed ISIS associate, an FBI agent who went by the name Sharif. A decorated soldier who had received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, Sharif had been working undercover for the FBI for about three years. His real name has not been disclosed.
Skaik and Sharif picked up Suarez, and together they went to Denny’s for lunch. Suarez seemed perplexed by Sharif. A black man with an American accent who was not only Muslim, but a member of ISIS? It didn’t make sense to him.
“But wait, wait, wait, you’re American?” Suarez asked him.
“Yeah,” Sharif answered.
“Oh, for real?”
Sharif provided his cover story: He was born in the United States, but his father taught him Arabic. He then moved overseas with his family and spent nearly two years in the Middle East before joining the U.S. Army, where he specialized in supplies and logistics.
Suarez and Sharif exchanged small talk. Suarez admitted that he didn’t speak “the Muslim language,” but that he understood what ISIS was standing for and he wanted to be part of the movement.
“I like you, brother,” Sharif told Suarez.
“Thank you,” Suarez replied.
“I told you he’s, uh, very, very smart guy, and, you know, and a great leader too,” Skaik said.
“Very smart, very smart,” Sharif followed.
Suarez insisted to Skaik and Sharif that he wanted to learn how to make bombs; he needed someone to teach him. But the FBI consistently steered him toward a plan in which they’d provide the bomb. “It’s like someone cooking, you know?” Skaik told him over lunch. “Like, I can tell you how to make that pasta, but when you make it, it tastes like shit!”
Even as they were directing Suarez, Skaik and Sharif spoke to him as if he were the leader. “Sheikh, I’m not trying to question your leadership,” Sharif said. Sharif told him that he had a contact who could build a bomb; Suarez just needed to kick in a little bit of money for the materials. “I mean realistically, how much money do you think you have to put toward this, to get them started on this?” Sharif asked him.
“Right now, I don’t have enough,” Suarez said.
“You don’t have, uh — I’m sorry, what’d you say?”
“I don’t have, like — I’m kinda short.”
Suarez explained that not only did he not have money, but he also didn’t have any of his guns. He’d pawned them for cash. Nevertheless, he seemed to be living in a wandering fantasy, constantly talking of different targets, from bombing a police cruiser to taking the bomb to a pool, despite having no clear means to launch any such attack. It appeared to frustrate the undercover FBI agent.
“Bro, brother, you, you said, like, cop car, you said open places, you said —” Sharif said, his voice terse.
“No, I know, I know, but uh —” Suarez replied, stumbling over his words.
“When I leave here, you tell me exactly what you want, what you want to do, when you want to do it, how many, how big, how little. I go talk to the brothers.”
Two days later, Skaik called Suarez. He said he saw Sharif at the mosque and his ISIS contact had agreed to make a bomb for Suarez. He also agreed to teach Suarez how to make a bomb after he’d planted the first one, Skaik explained, but he didn’t have many details. “I’m just a middleman,” Skaik said.
“What do you mean?” Suarez asked him. “You’re my partner.”
Skaik laughed uncomfortably.
“You’re my right hand,” Suarez added.
The FBI sting was moving along. But then, out of nowhere, Suarez dropped out of contact for 21 days. He didn’t return calls or respond to text messages.
On June 30, 2015, Suarez finally called Skaik. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, man,” Skaik told him. “Like, have you been getting my text messages at all?”
Suarez’s explanation for losing contact was convoluted. His phone’s screen had cracked. He was working a lot. But Skaik moved quickly to endear himself to the target again. “I just miss you,” the informant told Suarez. He explained that he’d stalled Sharif; everything was still fine to move forward. But if Suarez indeed wanted to move forward with the attack, he was showing little initiative. The Fourth of July holiday, when he had talked of planting a bomb, had come and gone. A week later, on July 11, 2015, Suarez called Skaik again and gave him a new phone number on which he could be reached. Sharif called him a couple of days after that and scolded him for being unresponsive.
“I went back to the brothers, and I spoke on your behalf, and then I don’t hear from you guys for over a month,” Sharif said. “Listen to me, brother, these guys that I speak to for you are serious guys.”
Suarez was in his bedroom, where a large, wooden four-poster bed was at the center. A Sony flat-screen television was on one wall, next to the door. Behind the door, visible when it was closed, hung an American flag. A toy helicopter rested on a tall dresser. Suarez’s collection of hats, their bills unbent, was on one of the walls. When Sharif called, Suarez’s mother was in the other room. He didn’t want her to hear, so he turned up the volume on the television, which also made it difficult for the undercover FBI agent to hear.
“Hey, turn the TV down some; it’s too loud,” Sharif told him.
“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” Suarez said, complying. “Go ahead.”
“These guys I spoke to for you are serious guys, all right?” Sharif explained. “If you and Mohammed, if you guys are not serious Islamic State brothers, then I don’t know why you guys are bothering me and playing games with me.”
Sharif gave Suarez an assignment. If he wanted to move forward, he needed to purchase a prepaid phone and be reachable at all times on that phone. Suarez did as he was told, but he only paid for a few minutes — barely enough time to hold conversations with Sharif and Skaik. But no matter. The FBI sent Skaik down to Key West again on July 19, 2015, and he delivered a new phone with more than enough minutes to remedy the FBI’s communication problems. In return, Suarez gave Skaik a backpack, nails, his old prepaid phone, and $100 — the items he was instructed to provide for the bomb.
“The video’s almost ready,” Skaik told Suarez. “Like, I put the music, I put the subtitles. It’s pretty fucking cool.”
Suarez would not see Skaik again for more than a year, when the informant arrived in U.S. District Court in Key West to testify against him. Skaik was paid $90,000 for his work with the FBI during this period.
Suarez received a phone call from his supposed bomb maker on July 24, 2015, but only after he’d failed to answer a number of calls from him. The bomb maker said his name was Omar, and he wasn’t happy about having to call so many times. “When I call you from this point on, I expect you to … pick up my phone call,” he said.
Unbeknownst to Suarez, Omar was an inspector with the U.S. Department of Justice. He was born in India, but he spoke perfect American English. His real name has not been revealed. Omar kept the conversation brief and maintained his authority throughout, at times barking orders at Suarez.
“I will be in Key West with your package ready to go for you in Key West on Monday between 10:30 and 11:00. I will call you when I’m —”
“But I’m, uh —” Suarez said, starting to interrupt but seeming to have no argument to make.
“Do not be late,” Omar said. “I’m gonna tell you again: do not be late. When I call you, make sure you are there on time. Do you understand?”
“Yes, yes,” Suarez replied.
Three days later, Omar drove to Key West. A hefty man who wore a blue and black patterned button-down shirt, Omar parked in the lot of an Italian restaurant next to Benihana, where Suarez had first met the FBI’s informant. Suarez hopped in the passenger seat of Omar’s car. Suarez was dressed in a gray hoodie and gray and purple hat. He had a red beach towel wrapped around his neck.
Omar handed Suarez the fake bomb. It was in the backpack Suarez had provided. The nails he’d given Skaik were attached to the side of the bomb. The cellphone he’d provided was wired to the bomb as the trigger mechanism. Omar showed him how to power on the bomb and then how to trigger it by calling the number.
“That’s it, brother,” Omar told him. “And then you just wanna turn it off right over here. Turn off that switch. There you go. Pretty simple, right? And power it all the way down. There you go. Do you have any questions?”
“No,” Suarez answered.
“How do you feel?” Omar asked.
“I’m feelin’ good.”
“Kinda exciting,” Suarez added.
As Suarez exited Omar’s car with the fake bomb wrapped inside his red beach towel, FBI agents arrested him. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami charged Suarez with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. “There is no room for failure when it comes to investigating the potential use of a weapon of mass destruction,” FBI Special Agent in Charge George L. Piro said in a prepared statement announcing Suarez’s arrest.
The odds were stacked against Suarez from the start. The Justice Department has a perfect record of conviction in ISIS cases. Prosecutors offered Suarez a plea deal that would have resulted in a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Both Suarez and his lawyer, Richard F. Della Fera, were open to the plea deal, fearing that he might be sentenced to life in prison if convicted at trial.
A neuropsychologist who examined Suarez after his arrest found him to be naive, with a tendency to acquiesce to others. In Della Fera’s view, Suarez’s acquiescence made him easy prey for the forceful undercover FBI agents. But it also factored into his decision to plead out. In May 2016, Suarez’s mother called him in jail. He told his mother he believed it was impossible to win the case, but she steamrolled over his instinct to plead guilty, telling him not to think that way and instead to have faith in God. “Although he is in his mid-20s, defendant’s mother treats him like a child,” Della Fera wrote in a court filing.
At his trial, Suarez attempted to explain away his interactions with the FBI by describing how he wanted to learn more about ISIS, which he discovered by watching CNN, but did not know what to do when he found himself in too deep with Sharif and Omar. “I wanted to have a conversation so that I could learn how these people are, what these people think, and how these people act,” Suarez said.
He testified that, after not returning Skaik’s calls, he felt threatened by Sharif’s demands that he get a phone and be responsive. “In a very strong manner, and to me it was a very threatening manner because in my mind they were people from the — they were people from the Islamic group,” Suarez said.
“Could you describe for us why you agreed to meet with Omar on July 27?” Della Fera asked Suarez, referring to do the day he collected the fake bomb.
“I saw that I had no other choice but to keep on doing what they were telling me to do, since I had been trying for many times to get out of that circle, giving them excuses, but they would make me go back, and I had no other choice but to go to that place.”
The jury didn’t accept Suarez’s excuses and convicted him on February 1. U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez, a former prosecutor who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, gave Suarez the maximum punishment: life in prison.
Suarez’s sentence is indicative of the increasingly harsh punishment ISIS defendants caught up in FBI stings are now facing in federal courts. While federal judges rarely gave life sentences to sting targets allegedly affiliated with Al Qaeda and other groups — the Fort Dix Five being a notable exception — Suarez is one of two ISIS defendants to receive a life sentence in the last year.
In each of these ISIS cases, the other being Justin Nojan Sullivan, the FBI provided the weapons in the supposed plots. Since Suarez was arrested after taking custody of the fake bomb, there’s no way of knowing with certainty what he would have done with it.
During Suarez’s testimony, Della Fera asked him what he planned to do with the bomb the FBI provided.
“The only thing that I thought was to take it to a place where there were no people and detonate it there,” Suarez answered.
“Did you have a place in mind where you might be able to accomplish that?”
“Big Coppitt,” Suarez said, referring to an island next to Key West.
“And is that a crowded area, or is that an isolated area?” Della Fera asked.
Correction: September 3, 2017
A previous version of this article stated that a third ISIS defendant, Munir Abdulkader, had been sentenced to life in prison. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison plus life supervision.