The Unlikely Jihadi

The FBI Pressured a Lonely Young Man Into a Bomb Plot. He Tried to Back Out. Now He’s Serving Life in Prison.

Screenshot: FBI surveillance footage
Screenshot: FBI surveillance footage

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.

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Harlem Suarez’s Facebook page.

Screenshot: Facebook

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.)

In this photo taken on Monday, July 27, 2015, federal agents and Key West Police gather in a restaurant parking lot in Key West, Fla. A man described by the FBI as an Islamic State sympathizer who hoped to mount attacks on U.S. soil was charged Tuesday with plotting to detonate a nail-filled backpack bomb on a Florida beach. (Rob O'Neal/The Key West Citizen via AP)  MIAMI OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

In this photo taken on Monday, July 27, 2015, federal agents and Key West Police gather in a restaurant parking lot in Key West, Fla.

Photo: Rob O’Neal/The Key West Citizen/AP

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.

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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.

Audio: FBI surveillance tape

“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?”

knights-inn-homestead-google-maps-street-view-1504121656Knights Inn in Homestead, Fla., where Harlem Suarez met the FBI’s informant to make an ISIS propaganda video.

Photo: Google Street View

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 —”

The FBI assisted Harlem Suarez in making a jihadi video. Video: FBI surveillance footage

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit.”

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.

Audio: FBI surveillance tape

“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.”

DSC0040-1400-1504122526

Harlem Suarez’s bedroom.

Photo: FBI

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.

Audio: FBI surveillance tape

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.

Audio: FBI surveillance tape

“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.

Video: FBI surveillance footage

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.”

“Yeah?”

“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.

DSC0012-1400-1504122568

The parking lot where FBI agents arrested Harlem Suarez. The fake bomb he was given rests on the ground.

Photo: FBI

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.

“Isolated.”

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.

Top photo: The FBI assisted Harlem Suarez in making a jihadi video.

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Contact the author:

Trevor Aaronsontrevor@​trevoraaronson.com@trevoraaronson

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Photo: Scout Tufankjian/AP

Once considered so dangerous by the U.S. Department of Justice that he was kept in solitary confinement for more than six months, Abdulrahman Farhane, a Moroccan-born U.S. citizen, will be released today from a Brooklyn halfway house, not far from where he once operated an Islamic bookstore.

Farhane will be the 417th defendant to be released following a conviction on terrorism-related charges after the 9/11 attacks. He pleaded guilty to his role in what the government described as a plot to send money to fighters in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Farhane was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

His case was a touchstone in the war on terror, because it involved one of the earliest investigations after 9/11 as well as two informants and two FBI agents who all would become notable figures in their own rights.

Farhane, a father of six children whose House of Knowledge on Atlantic Avenue sold religious books, bumper sticks, and various gadgets, came to the FBI’s attention in the days after 9/11 when an informant claimed the bookstore owner had “radical views of Islam.” The informant, Mohamed Alanssi, was a Yemeni man who had worked at the U.S. Embassy in Sana in the 1970s. He had a trail of debts and a history of failed businesses in Yemen and the United States, and his handler at the FBI was agent Robert Fuller (who later played a role in the extraordinary rendition of Canadian Maher Arar and oversaw the controversial FBI sting involving the so-called Newburgh Four).

Alanssi discussed with Farhane the possibility of sending money to Afghanistan and Chechnya. Alanssi made it clear in these conversations that he wanted the money sent to terrorists, and Farhane wanted to help, according to FBI recordings. (Farhane later told the FBI in an interview that “he did not want to be rude” to his customer.) Farhane then introduced Alanssi to Tarik Shah, a jazz bassist who played at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, telling the FBI informant that Shah could help him smuggle money out of the country.

The FBI informant nurtured his relationships with Farhane and Shah, but couldn’t push the case forward. After two years, the FBI introduced a second informant, an ex-convict and former Black Panther named Saeed Torres (who also went by the name Theodore Shelby). Torres, who was later featured in the documentary “(T)ERROR,” rented an apartment in a building in the Bronx owned by Shah’s mother, and recorded conversations with Shah in which the jazz bassist obsessed about martial arts and his ambitions to train Muslims in hand-to-hand combat. Torres then introduced Shah and one of his friends, a doctor named Rafiq Sabir, to an undercover FBI agent, who led them in a pledge to Al Qaeda. The agent, Ali Soufan, later spoke out publicly about CIA torture and started a security consulting company that does business with the Qatari government.

As the FBI was building its case against Farhane, Shah, Sabir, and a Washington, D.C., taxi driver named Mahmud Faruq Brent, Alanssi publicly divorced himself from the FBI. In November 2004, he sent a fax to Fuller, his FBI handler, reading: “Why you don’t care about my life and my family’s life?”

Alanssi, wearing a suit and tie, doused himself in gasoline and walked up to the northwest guardhouse of the White House. He asked the Secret Service agents to deliver a message to President George W. Bush. The guards turned him away. Alanssi then set himself on fire, burning about 30 percent of his body.

The Justice Department first indicted Shah, Sabir, and Brent, and then later added Farhane to the indictment, based on recordings in which Farhane discussed sending money overseas. Farhane and Shah were accused of conspiring to transfer money to be used to buy communications equipment for terrorists. Farhane was also charged with making false statements to the FBI to cover up his involvement, according to the government.

During his first appearance in court, Farhane told the judge: “I’m not guilty. I didn’t do anything. This is my country. I love my country.”

Farhane’s lawyer at the time, Michael Hueston, added: “He had no run-ins with the law until Mr. Alanssi came along.”

While Farhane maintained that he was not involved in terrorism, he pleaded guilty to the charges to avoid a longer prison sentence. Shah and Brent also pleaded guilty, and received sentences of 13 and 15 years, respectively. Sabir was found guilty at trial and received 25 years.

Farhane is the first of the group to be released. Shah and Brent are scheduled to be released from federal prison next summer.

Top photo: The Al-Farooq mosque, center, on Atlantic Avenue in the Brooklyn borough of New York on March 5, 2003.

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The Banned

The Government’s Own Data Shows Country of Origin Is a Poor Predictor of Terrorist Threat

Photo: Anik Rahman/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Photo: Anik Rahman/NurPhoto/Getty Images

While the Trump administration has struggled to provide evidence to support the need for a travel ban targeting Muslims, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been working since at least 2015 to limit Muslim immigration.

In November 2015, in a letter co-signed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, then-Alabama Sen. Sessions accused the Obama administration of refusing to provide immigration information about defendants who had been charged in U.S. District Court with international terrorism-related offenses.

“It is quite telling that this administration — which seems to have unlimited resources to circumvent our immigration laws and further its executive amnesties — cannot find the time or resources to provide timely answers to these simple questions,” Sessions and Cruz wrote.

So the two senators took matters into their own hands. Using a list of 580 terrorism-related defendants provided by the Justice Department, Sessions assigned the staff of the Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, which he chaired at the time, to research the country of origin and immigration status of each defendant. The committee staff found that of the 580 terrorism defendants they researched, 375 were born outside the United States. To Sessions and Cruz, this validated their view that terrorism was a largely foreign threat.

In another letter to the Obama administration in June 2016, Sessions and Cruz wrote that the information “makes clear that the United States lacks the ability to properly screen individuals prior to their arrival to the United States. It further makes clear that our nation has a serious assimilation problem.”

The Sessions data, which included country of origin and immigration data for some, but not all, of the defendants, was among the sources used by The Intercept to build a database of international terrorism prosecutions since the 9/11 attacks. (The Intercept intends to keep the database up to date and expand the fields regularly; at present, staff members are researching, among other data, the country of origin for approximately 350 international terrorism-related defendants not found by the subcommittee staff.)

A review of the Sessions data, however, suggests that neither country of origin nor immigration status is a clear indicator of heightened national security concern.

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN NUMBER OF PEOPLE
United States 73
Pakistan 61
Lebanon 27
Somalia 21
Colombia 20
Yemen 20
Iraq 19
Egypt 17
Jordan 16
Afghanistan 10
Palestine 9
Saudi Arabia 9
India 8
Gaza 7
Syria 7
Morocco 6
West Bank 6
Indonesia 5
Kuwait 5
Canada 4
El Salvador 4
Iran 4
Turkey 4
United Kingdom 4
Albania 3
Bangladesh 3
Guyana 3
Mali 3
Sri Lanka 3
Sudan 3
Tunisia 3
Algeria 2
Bosnia 2
Eritrea 2
Ethiopia 2
France 2
Haiti 2
Kazakhstan 2
Kosovo 2
Libya 2
Nigeria 2
Senegal 2
Singapore 2
South Africa 2
Tanzania 2
Venezuela 2
Angola 1
Australia 1
Brazil 1
Cambodia 1
Chile 1
Denmark 1
Djibouti 1
Dominican Republic 1
Germany 1
Greece 1
Guatemala 1
Israel 1
Ivory Coast 1
Kuwait – Citizen of Jordan 1
Lebanon – Canada 1
Malaysia 1
Mexico 1
Nicaragua 1
Pakistan – Canada 1
Panama 1
Paraguay 1
Peru 1
Philippines 1
Qatar 1
Russia 1
South Korea 1
Trinidad & Tobago 1
United Kingdom – India 1
Uzbekistan 1
Vietnam 1
Yugoslavia 1

In June 2016, the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest chaired by Jeff Sessions released data on 580 terrorism defendants, including country of origin for 448, as part of his campaign to limit Muslim immigration. The data shows that national birthplace is a poor predictor of terrorist threat.

While at first blush the Sessions data may seem to suggest disproportionate numbers of terrorism defendants from countries affected by the travel ban, or by immigrants who came to the United States as refugees, the data is incomplete — country of origin is not known for 132 defendants, or 23 percent — and inherently biased by prosecutorial targeting. Following the 9/11 attacks, with the FBI increasing its number of informants in Muslim communities due to a presidential mandate, Muslims became the primary focus of terrorism investigations and, by extension, prosecutions for charges related to international terrorism. Many of these prosecutions were not for serious offenses such as material support or weapons of mass destruction, but instead for nonviolent crimes such as immigration violations or lying to FBI agents.

In addition, the U.S. government segregates terrorism prosecutions into two types — domestic and international. The Sessions data includes only prosecutions related to international terrorism and leaves out all prosecutions of domestic terrorists, who are in most cases born in the United States.

Of the 580 defendants in the list, Sessions’s committee staff found the country of birth for 448 based on open-source research. Of those, U.S.-born American citizens represented the single largest group, with 73 defendants. The second largest group, consisting of 61 defendants, was from Pakistan, which is not affected by the travel ban.

The numbers fall precipitously from there. The third-largest group, consisting of 21 defendants, was from Somalia, which is included in the travel ban. The other countries included in Trump’s travel ban were Iran (four), Libya (two), Sudan (three), Syria (seven), and Yemen (20). Iraq, which was in the first version of the travel ban but not the second, had 19 terrorism defendants in Sessions’s data.

For comparison, 20 of the terrorism defendants in the Sessions data were born in Colombia, the same number of defendants who were born in Yemen. If the travel ban were indeed about restricting travel from terror-prone nations, as the Trump administration has claimed, the Sessions data would in theory provide a compelling case for adding Colombia, a Catholic-majority nation, to the ban list.

The Trump administration’s travel ban, which was established by executive order and affected seven Muslim-majority nations in its first iteration and six in its second, also temporarily blocks refugees from entering the country. Of the 448 defendants for whom Sessions’s committee staffers could find information, 24 entered the United States as refugees. According to the Sessions data, not a single refugee from Syria has been charged with terrorism-related offenses in the United States. Trump’s first travel ban blocked Syrian refugees indefinitely. The current travel ban places a temporary halt on the entry of all refugees.

Neither version of Trump’s travel ban is in effect, following multiple successful court challenges arguing that the executive orders discriminate against Muslims. The Trump administration has filed notice to appeal at least one ruling that halted the second version of the travel ban.

Top photo: High school students protest policies affecting Muslim and immigrant students at Foley Square in New York City, Feb. 7, 2017.

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The New Targets

FBI Stings Zero In on ISIS Sympathizers. Few Have Terrorist Links.

Photo: iberkshires.com
Photo: iberkshires.com

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.

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 24: Boston cab drivers rallied this morning before attending a hearing, chaired by Capt. Robert Ciccolo, seen here, with Boston Police Hackney Division at Roxbury Community College regarding a proposed fare increase. (Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Capt. Robert Ciccolo chairing a hearing at Roxbury Community College.

Photo: George Rizer/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

After Alexander was arrested, FBI agents read him his Miranda rights. He then sat for an interview with FBI agents Paul Ambrogio and Julia Cowley.

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.

BRIGHTON --  Buddhist nun Jun Yasuda, left, Lauren Carlbon and Alex Ciccolo on their recent peace walk through Brighton. Ms. Yasuda and her fellow walkers are traveling 600 km around Lake Ontario to spread awareness about the dangers of nuclear energy and weapons. July 26, 2012.

Alexander Ciccolo, right, along with Buddhist nun Jun Yasuda and Lauren Carlbon, on a peace walk through Brighton, Mass., July 26, 2012.

Photo: Dave Fraser/Metroland Media/The Independent

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.

Top photo: Alexander Ciccolo, 23, also known as Ali Al Amriki, had machetes, a knife, and partially made Molotov cocktails in his apartment when he was arrested in a counterterrorism sting operation.

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The Cooperators

Terrorism Defendants With Concrete Ties to Violent Extremists Leverage Their Connections to Avoid Prison

Photo: Brendan McDermid/REUTERS
Photo: Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

Since the 9/11 attacks, at least 30 people convicted of international terrorism-related offenses have become informants and/or cooperating witnesses in exchange for leniency in sentencing, according to an analysis by The Intercept of federal terrorism prosecutions.

Using the threat of criminal prosecution to encourage someone to cooperate is a well-worn tactic that long predates the war on terror. But this tactic has been used to great effect by federal prosecutors in the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. There’s a cruel irony in this system. The misguided men, and sometimes women, who are caught up in counterterrorism stings — where an undercover agent or informant encourages or facilitates plans for an attack — are often sentenced to decades in prison because they have no information to trade. Members of the so-called Liberty City Seven, a group of Miami men who discussed a bomb plot with an undercover informant posing as an Al Qaeda operative, spent six to 13 years behind bars; they couldn’t become cooperating witnesses, because they didn’t know any real terrorists. But the more dangerous a defendant, or the more extensive his contacts with terrorists, the more likely he can leverage his connections for leniency.

One early informant was Mohammed Junaid Babar, an Al Qaeda operative who provided material support to efforts against U.S. forces in Pakistan. In exchange for more than six years of cooperation, Babar received a sentence of time served and 10 years of supervised release. As part of his supervised release, Babar was required to continue to cooperate with the government. His whereabouts have never been disclosed publicly, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has no public record of Babar having entered custody at any point during his cooperation.

The case of Najibullah Zazi offers another example. Zazi trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and then mixed beauty-supply chemicals for backpack bombs in a motel outside Denver. He was arrested in September 2009, before he could drive to New York and place those bombs on the subway. Zazi, whose sentence has been pending since he pleaded guilty in February 2010, is currently working for the government as a cooperating witness.

Some of the government’s cooperating witnesses have been plucked from far-flung battlefields. Bryant Neal Vinas, who went by the name Bashir al-Ameriki, was captured in Pakistan. After admitting that he fired rockets on a U.S. military base in September 2008, Vinas turned informant. He provided information about a plot to blow up a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in New York’s Penn Station as well as information about Belgian and French men who attended the same training camp he did. Vinas pleaded guilty in January 2009 to an indictment charging him with, among other offenses, conspiracy to kill Americans and material support for terrorists. His sentence has been pending since then, and there is no record of him ever being turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, suggesting he is in a witness security program.

One of the most colorful and revealing cases of a terrorism defendant-turned-cooperator is that of Earnest James Ujaama, perhaps the most prolific cooperating witness in the war on terror. A would-be entrepreneur with an explosive temper and a penchant for running minor scams, Ujaama became a close associate of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, whom a senior Justice Department official once called “an unrepentant all-purpose terrorist.” But while Abu Hamza is now serving a life prison sentence, Ujaama is free, living in idyllic Berkeley, California, collecting approximately $2,000 per month from the federal government, at least until recently, and looking to tell his story to a receptive audience.

I first heard from Ujaama on November 12, 2015, when he sent me an email. “I’m looking to tell the story of a case that I think you will be most interested in,” he wrote. Later that day, in another email, Ujaama disclosed the primary condition of his cooperation. He wanted me to write a book with him about his life. “I’ve listened to you speak,” he wrote. “I’ve watched your presentation. I like your work.”

In a series of phone and email conversations, Ujaama described how he also wanted compensation for his story. “I don’t pay for access to people,” I told Ujaama.

This sort of back-and-forth continued for months. Sometimes I initiated contact, because I was intrigued by Ujaama’s story. Sometimes he reached out to me, for reasons that were not always clear. Our exchanges always were short-lived. Ujaama is a chameleon-like man who has been many things: entrepreneur, author, college student, religious scholar, newsletter publisher, aspiring movie producer, website designer, even a mule carrying cash into Afghanistan. Now, it seemed, he was attempting to fashion a new career as a terrorism expert, but at his core, the slender 51-year-old with close-cropped hair and braces on his teeth is a hustler — someone who, in the words of one federal judge, always plays “fast and loose.”

During his 13-year cooperation as a witness for the government, Ujaama has testified in two terrorism trials — including that of Abu Hamza, who was also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa — and would have testified in a third had the defendant not pleaded guilty. In a court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan called Ujaama’s cooperation with the government “extraordinary.”

Finally, in October 2016, Ujaama wrote me once again. He was irritated by a 60 Minutes story about Mary Quin, a New Zealander who was kidnapped in Yemen by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group and portrayed by CBS News as the U.S. Department of Justice’s star witness in Abu Hamza’s trial. This was outrageous to Ujaama, because in his view, he was the star witness against the religious cleric with connections to Al Qaeda. “You should come see me. I’m in the Bay Area until November,” Ujaama wrote. We agreed to meet the following month.

LONDON, United Kingdom:  (FILES) Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri addresses followers during Friday prayer in near Finsbury Park mosque in north London, in this 26 March 2004 file photo. Hamza al-Masri was found guilty Tuesday 07 February 2006 of incitement of racial hatred and soliciting murder charges after a criminal trial in London. Hamza, 47, was convicted of six out of nine soliciting-to-murder charges and two out of four charges of "using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up racial hatred".AFP PHOTO/ODD ANDERSEN/FILES  (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri addresses followers during Friday prayer near Finsbury Park Mosque in north London on March 26, 2004.

Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Born in Denver as James Earnest Thompson, Ujaama moved to Seattle as a boy. “I grew up under the Black Panthers,” he said in court testimony. By most accounts he was whip-smart, driven, and eager to make a mark on the world.

But Ujaama also had a fiery disposition. Once, when his girlfriend called police and reported that he had a gun, Ujaama got into a scuffle with a cop and broke the officer’s watch. Enacting revenge on his girlfriend for the incident, Ujaama poured a five-pound bag of sugar into her car’s gasoline tank.

In the mid-1980s, Ujaama moved to Pelican, Alaska, to take a job at a seafood company, where he said he struggled with a racist culture there. “I just got tired of being called nigger,” he recalled. One day, frustrated by the racism, Ujaama grabbed a .375 Winchester rifle and shot out the window of the housing unit where he was staying. He went to jail for the incident.

By the early 1990s, he’d returned to Seattle and joined the personal computer industry. Ujaama was a partner in Olympic Computers, which sold IBM clones at wholesale. But the company didn’t last; Ujaama began a scam, telling customers to send him checks so that he would get the money rather than his partner. In all, Ujaama raked in about $10,000 from the ploy.

Then Ujaama switched to writing books, positioning himself as a motivational speaker and community activist. One book, “The Young People’s Guide to Starting a Business Without Selling Drugs,” encouraged young black men to become entrepreneurs. “When a person lacks knowledge and vision,” Ujaama wrote in the foreword, “that person becomes a soldier in the wrong war, an enemy to others and to themselves.”

Ujaama followed these efforts with a work of fiction, “Coming Up,” a semi-autobiographical story about two friends — one becomes a drug dealer, the other a successful businessman. Ujaama moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of turning “Coming Up” into a movie. Although he claimed to have received a commitment for half of the money to produce the film adaptation, the promised funds were contingent on Ujaama raising the second half from other sources, which he couldn’t do. It was a flop, like most of Ujaama’s business ventures.

Despite characterizing himself as an entrepreneur, Ujaama has never run a successful business, at least not according to any measure the IRS would endorse. He has never paid taxes, and in some years did not file tax returns at all. “The understanding I had was that I did not owe taxes,” he said.

At a low point after failing to turn his book into a movie, Ujaama returned to Seattle and converted to Islam in late 1996. Ujaama devoted himself to Islam and moved to England to study under Abdullah El-Faisal, a Jamaican-born cleric who was imam of the Brixton Mosque in South London. Ujaama became something of an apostle for El-Faisal, traveling back and forth from London to Seattle, where he’d sell tapes of El-Faisal’s sermons. Yet rather than providing a portion of the sales to El-Faisal, Ujaama pocketed the proceeds.

While in London, Ujaama married a Muslim woman from Somalia, and they had a child. El-Faisal had taught Ujaama that jihad training was a Muslim’s obligation, so in late 1998, Ujaama traveled to Afghanistan for training. “I was looking to learn physical jihad training, which would include hand-to-hand combat, how to use weaponry, and live as a Muslim,” Ujaama explained later in court testimony. He made his way to a training camp run by a conservative Muslim missionary group. The camp used an aging Soviet-built military barracks, a soccer field, a large artillery gun, and some broken-down tanks. Ujaama received weapons training and learned how to recite the Quran. But he wasn’t much of a militant. One night, while in the bathroom, Ujaama accidentally fired his rifle. He soon fell ill and left the camp after just two weeks.

Ujaama returned to London and continued his studies under El-Faisal. At the time, El-Faisal was badmouthing Abu Hamza, the religious leader in London who would later be prosecuted in New York. Some of El-Faisal’s students asked Ujaama to meet with Abu Hamza and help mediate the dispute.

Abu Hamza commanded a mysterious aura because, well, he looked like a James Bond villain. He had one eye and was missing both of his hands, forcing him to use a prosthetic hook. Born in Egypt, Abu Hamza studied civil engineering before coming to the United Kingdom in 1979. Various stories have circulated about how Abu Hamza sustained his injuries, including one that alleged his hands were chopped off after he was caught stealing in Saudi Arabia. In truth, according to Abu Hamza, he lost his hands and an eye during an explosives accident while assisting the Pakistani military in a road-building project.

Ujaama recalled being “very impressed with Sheikh Abu Hamza” from that initial meeting. After listening to Abu Hamza’s taped lectures, Ujaama turned his back on El-Faisal. “I decided that he wasn’t a good person to follow,” Ujaama said. His spurned mentor began telling people that Ujaama had stolen money.

But it didn’t matter. Ujaama had his new teacher, Abu Hamza, who had a growing international following through the website of his organization, Supporters of Sharia. When Ujaama decided to return to the United States in 1999, Abu Hamza gave him about a dozen tapes of his lectures. The tapes bore Supporters of Sharia’s logo — a shackled man behind bars reaching out of the cell with a Quran in hand. The lectures were “very angry, but serious,” according to Ujaama, who distributed copies in Seattle’s Muslim community. As he did with El-Faisal’s tapes, Ujaama pocketed the profits.

It was during this return trip to Seattle that Ujaama heard about a ranch in southern Oregon. The entrepreneur in Ujaama saw an opportunity: He could build a training camp for Muslims and advertise it to Abu Hamza’s followers. Ujaama sent a fax to Abu Hamza describing his idea, but he also exaggerated the progress he’d made in turning the ranch into a training camp. He claimed he had secured weapons and recruits and had already started to build structures. He asked Abu Hamza to send two men from London to assist him.

Oussama Kassir, center, Lebanese-born Swedish citizen wanted in the United States on suspicion of plotting to set up a terrorist camp there, is escorted by heavily armed policemen to the courtroom in Prague on Wednesday, April 25, 2007. The Czech court ruled today that Oussama Kassir can be extradited to the USA however he immediately appealed the decision of the Municipal Court in Prague. Kassir is charged in the USA with conspiracy aimed at providing material support to terrorists for which he faces up to a life sentence if found guilty. Kassir was arrested by the Czech police upon an international arrest warrant at Prague's Ruzyne airport during a stop-over of his plane flying from Stockholm to Beirut in December 2005. (AP Photo/CTK) ** SLOVAKIA OUT **

Oussama Kassir, center, a Lebanese national and Swedish citizen wanted in the United States on suspicion of plotting to set up a terrorist camp, is escorted by armed police officers to the courtroom in Prague on April 25, 2007.

Photo: CTK/AP

The men Abu Hamza sent were Oussama Kassir, a Lebanese national and Swedish citizen who claimed to have been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and Haroon Aswat, a slender British man. The brawny Kassir was to be a physical trainer at the camp, while the studious Aswat would act as a religious and Arabic tutor there. They flew to New York on November 26, 1999, and then took a Greyhound bus across the country to Seattle.

After they arrived, Ujaama drove the two men for eight hours to southern Oregon, where Ujaama showed them the ranch. Instead of having the makings of a training camp, it was desolate. There were no stockpiles of weapons. There were no recruits. The only structures were dilapidated trailers.

Ujaama, true to his roots, had been running a hustle. He just needed Abu Hamza’s stamp of approval and support, and he figured if he could get a couple of Abu Hamza’s guys on site, he could line up investments to get the weapons he claimed he already had and start the construction he said was already underway.

But Kassir, realizing that Ujaama had lied about the camp, became angry. “He got in my face and began to point his finger at me,” Ujaama later testified.

His training camp scheme dashed following the argument with Kassir, Ujaama fled back to Seattle, leaving behind the two men Abu Hamza had sent. Ujaama never returned to the ranch.

Instead, Ujaama moved back to London in the spring of 2000 and returned to his studies under Abu Hamza. If the religious cleric was irritated by Ujaama’s overselling of the training camp, or his dispute with Kassir, he didn’t seem to show it. He took in Ujaama as a close aide, and Ujaama began to work on the Supporters of Sharia website, expanding the English-language portion in order to reach non-Arabic speakers.

Eventually Abu Hamza had a mission for Ujaama. He asked him to travel to Afghanistan to deliver money and escort a member of the London mosque, a Ugandan-born British man named Feroz Abbasi. Abu Hamza gave Ujaama a letter addressed to the foreign minister of the Taliban government to guarantee safe passage into Afghanistan.

Ujaama and Abbasi purchased plane tickets and traveled to Pakistan. After checking into a hotel in Quetta, Ujaama snuck away without telling Abbasi and headed to the Taliban embassy. “I decided that because he would interfere with what I was doing,” Ujaama said. At the embassy, Ujaama handed the Taliban representative the letter from Abu Hamza.

The Taliban escorted Ujaama in an SUV across the border and to the Kandahar compound of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan who ran a training camp in Afghanistan. Following Abu Hamza’s instruction, he gave al-Libi an envelope containing 500 British pounds. Ujaama then traveled to Khost to find a girls’ school to deliver another envelope of money, but wasn’t able to locate it. Instead, he encountered a man who wanted to send Ujaama to the front lines in the Taliban’s war against the Northern Alliance. Ujaama called Abu Hamza in London to intercede. “I’m not here for that purpose,” he said.

The call prevented Ujaama’s military conscription, but Abu Hamza asked him about Abbasi. “I left him behind,” Ujaama said. Angry, Abu Hamza demanded that Ujaama go back to Pakistan and bring Abbasi to Afghanistan. Ujaama told Abu Hamza that he would collect Abbasi, even though he had no intention of doing so.

Back at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, Ujaama continued to assist Abu Hamza and work on the Supporters of Sharia website. In early September 2001, Ujaama agreed to travel once more to Afghanistan to deliver money.

On September 11, 2001, on his way to Afghanistan, Ujaama was awoken to the Pakistani military police knocking on his hotel door. “They asked me if I needed protection,” Ujaama recalled. He learned that hijacked airplanes had been turned into weapons in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

Abu Hamza wanted Ujaama to continue into Afghanistan and deliver the money, but Ujaama refused. The U.S. military had begun bombing the country. Instead, Ujaama made his way to the United States, with 1,000 pounds of Abu Hamza’s cash in hand.

Ujaama was arrested in July 2002 at his grandmother’s former home in Denver, Colorado. “The government is conducting a witch hunt,” Ujaama said in a public statement at the time. The federal government first held Ujaama on a material witness warrant, then indicted him on material support charges related to the supposed training camp in Oregon.

Though he seemed destined for a lengthy prison sentence, Ujaama’s life was about to take a new turn.

After his arrest, Ujaama followed a path similar to those of other post-9/11 terrorism defendants. As part of a plea deal, Ujaama admitted that he conspired to aid the Taliban. In exchange for a sentence of two years in prison, Ujaama agreed to be a witness in the U.S. government’s prosecutions of Abu Hamza and the two other men who collaborated with Ujaama on the purported training camp in Oregon — Oussama Kassir and Haroon Aswat. In 2004, prosecutors in Manhattan charged Abu Hamza, Kassir, and Aswat with terrorism-related charges.

When they were indicted, Abu Hamza was in the United Kingdom, Kassir in the Czech Republic, and Aswat in Zambia. All three fought extradition to the United States, creating a prolonged legal battle that meant Ujaama would wait years to fulfill his obligation to testify in their cases.

By December 2006, Ujaama grew impatient and frustrated by what he viewed as the government forcing him to testify against Abu Hamza. He fled to Belize, where he hoped he could be reunited with his wife and child, but he was arrested by local authorities. Since he violated his plea deal in Washington, federal prosecutors indicted Ujaama again in Manhattan, this time with additional charges. As part of a second cooperating agreement, Ujaama pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts, including a conspiracy to build the training camp in Oregon. He served an additional four years in prison.

Ujaama testified against Kassir in 2009, helping the government to win a conviction and ensuring that the man he’d argued with on the ranch received a sentence of life in prison.

Five years after Kassir’s trial, federal prosecutors finally put Abu Hamza on trial in Manhattan. Ujaama testified for four days in the spring of 2014, describing in detail how he helped his former mentor with the Supporters of Sharia website and newsletter, how he asked him to send two men to the ranch in Oregon, and how he delivered money to Afghanistan.

Abu Hamza was convicted on May 19, 2014, and sentenced to life in prison. He is reportedly in solitary confinement and without his prosthetic limbs.

Haroon Aswat pleaded guilty in March 2015 following the successful convictions of Kassir and Abu Hamza. He received a sentence of 30 years in prison.

On October 23, 2015, Ujaama was sentenced, for the final time, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. “I wish I would have never gotten involved with Abu Hamza,” Ujaama said at his sentencing. “And I think he’s a bad man.”

Judge Katherine B. Forrest said she did not believe Ujaama posed a terrorist threat. If he posed any threat to society, she said, it was “petty fraud or something like that.” She sentenced Ujaama to time served, and in recognition of Ujaama’s years of cooperation with the government, she declined to give him any term of supervised release.

For the first time since 2002, Ujaama was free.

ujaama_edit-1492629291

Earnest James Ujaama poses for a photograph at the University of Washington, where he became a graduate student while serving as a government witness in terrorism prosecutions.

Photo: Wikipedia

Ujaama now divides his time between Berkeley and Seattle. He’s collected at least $100,000 in payments from the government for his cooperation and has amassed student loan debt, which, as of late 2015, had reached $86,000. He expects to finish his doctoral studies at the University of Washington.

Following my year of on-and-off exchanges with Ujaama, we met for the first time in Berkeley in December 2016. I agreed to one condition: We’d keep the first day off the record, and then once we’d gotten acquainted, our conversations thereafter would be on the record.

But after speaking with me over coffee and lunch in Berkeley, Ujaama still wasn’t willing to participate in an interview for an article he couldn’t control. After several hours, I told him it was now his choice. I walked toward the Berkeley BART station. Ujaama followed. We chatted for another hour, standing in the train station lobby. I finally told him that if he wanted to be interviewed, he could come see me in San Francisco the next day.

That evening, I emailed Ujaama to give him one last chance to talk, and to let him know I’d be writing about him, regardless of his cooperation.

“Have a safe return home, bro,” was his only reply.

The next week, I sent Ujaama a list of questions for this story. “I’m in the middle of a research project for my doctoral studies and am very busy,” he wrote. He didn’t respond to any of the questions.

Ujaama doesn’t want to be seen as just another snitch in the ongoing war on terror. He clings to a personal brand of exceptionalism that paints him as both a victim of overzealous prosecution and a star actor on the larger stage of U.S. terrorism prosecutions. And while he insists he wants to spark reform, his case best illustrates the injustice of a system that gives light sentences to those who trade terrorist contacts and cooperation for leniency, while sending those with no such connections to prison for decades.

In the meantime, during my discussions with Ujaama, his Wikipedia entry was being updated almost daily with granular detail about his life.

The entry at one point refers directly to the editor responsible for the frequent updates: “This author is in possession of all court transcripts, sentencing memorandums, and primary documents related to United States vs. Earnest James Ujaama,” the entry read, noting that many of the documents are filed under seal. “Most of what is found on the Internet is piece-meal journalism, speculation or theory, and is outdated,” the entry continued.

I sent Ujaama one final question. “Are you the one writing your Wikipedia entry?” I asked. Ujaama never responded.

Top photo: Earnest James Ujaama, a former follower of radical London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, exits the Manhattan U.S. District Court in New York on October 23, 2015.

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Contact the author:

Trevor Aaronsontrevor@​trevoraaronson.com@trevoraaronson

Additional Credits:

Research: Margot Williams.
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The Released

More Than 400 People Convicted of Terrorism in the U.S. Have Been Released Since 9/11

Photo: John Loomis/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: John Loomis/The New York Times/Redux

Over the last 15 years, the U.S. government has quietly released more than 400 people convicted on international terrorism-related charges, according to a data analysis of federal terrorism prosecutions by The Intercept. Some were deported to other countries following their prison terms, but a large number of convicted terrorists are living in the United States. They could be your neighbors.

The release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges with little if any monitoring by law enforcement might suggest U.S. government officials believe they can be fully rehabilitated following minor prison terms. A more likely explanation is that many of these so-called terrorists weren’t particularly dangerous in the first place.

Among them is one of the Herald Square bombers, who plotted to attack the New York subway in 2004. Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay, egged on by informant Osama Eldawoody, conspired to plant bombs at the Herald Square station. They drew rough plans on napkins, surveilled the station, and discussed how they might acquire explosives. It was all talk. The two alleged bombers took different paths after their arrests. Siraj fought the charges and went to trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He won’t be released until 2030. Elshafay pleaded guilty and received a comparably modest sentence of five years in prison and three years of supervised release. He’s been a free man since January 28, 2009.

Or consider the case of Wassim I. Mazloum, who was part of an alleged terror cell in Toledo, Ohio, with Mohammad Zaki Amawi and Marwan Othman El-Hindi. The group’s leader was Darren Griffin, a former U.S. Army Special Forces member who became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI following a drug arrest. As part of a sting, Griffin trained the three men to use firearms, watched jihadi videos online with them, and conspired with Amawi in a half-baked plot to smuggle laptops from Jordan to Iraq. Mazloum, who was convicted at trial for his role, was released in April 2014.

Others convicted on terrorism-related charges were more blustery than dangerous. Two of the men who operated the website RevolutionMuslim.com — Jesse Curtis Morton and Joseph Cohen — were released. Morton and Cohen (who went by Younus Abdullah Muhammad and Yousef Mohamid Al-Khattab, respectively) were converts to Islam and encouraged violence against various people, including Jewish-American community leaders and the creators of “South Park.” Cohen was released in August 2016. Morton became an FBI informant and was released in February 2015. He was a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which described him as a “reformed” extremist, until December 2016, when local police in Virginia arrested him for bringing crack cocaine to meet a prostitute. Because the drug and prostitution arrest violated his parole terms, Morton went back to prison — but he’s scheduled to be released again on April 23.

Some of the more than 400 people convicted on terrorism-related charges and freed since 9/11 appear from government evidence to have been involved in genuine plots or to have been connected to dangerous actors. For example, Hassan Abu-Jihaad was a Navy signalman who was convicted at trial of providing material support to Al Qaeda by disclosing the location of the USS Benfold in an online forum. Using coded language, he also provided an FBI informant with information about the movements of U.S. Navy ships. He was released in January 2016.

Still others are quietly reintegrating into society through halfway houses, or “residential re-entry management centers,” in the language of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, for instance, was once in the national spotlight as the co-conspirator of Colleen LaRose, better known by her online moniker, “JihadJane.” LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez were part of a small group that went to Ireland and plotted to murder Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist best known for his drawing of the Prophet Mohammed’s head on the body of a dog. In Ireland, Paulin-Ramirez married Ali Charaf Damache, who was arrested in Spain in December 2015 on a U.S. warrant alleging he was a terrorist recruiter. While Damache was fighting extradition from Spain, Paulin-Ramirez was finishing her prison term in a halfway house in Philadelphia, where she was released on March 21.

In the war on terror, U.S. District Courts have represented the primary stage of what can fairly be described as national security theater. With a near-perfect record of conviction, the Justice Department since the 9/11 attacks has hauled into court more than 800 people on terrorism-related charges. While Justice Department and FBI news releases and press conferences heralded the arrests of such defendants, the U.S. government has said precious little about the hundreds of people convicted on terrorism-related charges who have been released back into the United States or deported to their home countries. During the remainder of President Donald Trump’s first term in office, for example, 67 people convicted on terrorism-related charges are scheduled to be released, according to The Intercept’s data analysis.

Those being released today, and the ones who will be released tomorrow, were yesterday examples the U.S. government held up as thwarted enemies caught by newly aggressive counterterrorism agents. One-fourth of those so far released were targets of FBI sting operations, in which an informant or undercover agent, posing as a terrorist operative, provided the means and opportunity for otherwise incapable individuals to move forward in terrorist plots. In congressional testimony, FBI Director James Comey and his predecessor, Robert Mueller, have specifically mentioned foiled plots from sting operations as examples of jobs well done, all part of a larger, ongoing pitch to justify to Congress and the public the more than $3 billion the FBI spends every year on counterterrorism efforts.

The FBI declined to answer specific questions about the release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges and did not provide any information about programs or policies to monitor those who have been released. “The FBI’s mission is to stay ahead of threats to the U.S. and its interests in order to protect the American people and uphold the U.S. Constitution,” FBI spokesperson Carol Cratty said, offering instead a blanket statement. “It is our duty to follow up on information we receive by using all lawful investigative techniques and methods to ensure public safety.”

The so-called Liberty City Seven case is indicative of how the U.S. government plays up the dangers of terrorism defendants when they are arrested but then never acknowledges that such purportedly dangerous individuals are routinely returned to their homes in the United States, in some cases just a few years after their arrests. As in other stings, the defendants in the Liberty City Seven case had no connection to terrorists. An undercover FBI informant, pretending to be an Al Qaeda agent, was the only alleged connection to terrorism. The case, one of the earliest of the FBI’s informant stings, was sloppier than most as well, because much of the bureau’s evidence seemed to support the men’s steadfast assertion that they were street hustlers trying to scam a big-talking Middle Easterner out of his money, not terrorists on the make. In fact, despite the government’s efforts to obfuscate this inconvenient fact, the seven men weren’t even Muslim; they considered themselves members of the Moorish Science Temple, blending together elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their belief system.

“The Liberty City case was a bellwether for the FBI and the Justice Department,” said James J. Wedick, a former FBI supervisory agent who was hired by the defense team to review the evidence. “If they could get convictions based on a thin case like this, they had a green light to be even more aggressive with terrorism stings.”

MIAMI - JUNE 23:  Media stands outside the warehouse that the FBI raided last evening June 23, 2006 in the Liberty CIty neighborhood of Miami, Florida. The U.S. Justice Department was expected to provide details of an alleged plot to attack the Chicago Sears Tower, in which at least seven people who were staying in the warehouse were arrested in Miami.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Members of the media stand outside the warehouse raided by the FBI in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida, June 23, 2006.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 2004, the brothers Burson and Rothschild Augustin lived in a Miami apartment above Narseal Batiste. Batiste, a former Chicago street preacher, operated a small drywall and construction business and considered himself a student of Western religions, studying the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran. Inspired by the Guardian Angels he had seen patrolling in Chicago, Batiste also fashioned himself something of a community activist and guardian.

The Augustin brothers joined up with Batiste and, along with a half-dozen others, worked in his drywall business and together rented a warehouse in the Miami neighborhood known as Liberty City, where they offered martial arts training and religious studies to neighborhood kids. They called themselves the “Seas of David” and would sometimes wear military-style uniforms as they marched through the streets. The group was largely Batiste’s personality cult. He described himself as the “divine leader” and suggested once that “man has the authority to, on a certain level, be God.”

A Yemeni man named Abbas al-Saidi ran a convenience store in Miami that Batiste and his guys frequented. Al-Saidi, who had worked as an informant for the New York Police Department, got in touch with the FBI and reported a suspicious group of men from Liberty City, who he claimed had sent him to Yemen to make connections with Al Qaeda. FBI agents turned al-Saidi into a paid informant, and on instructions from the bureau, he introduced Batiste to a second informant, Elie Assaad, who was posing as a representative of Osama bin Laden. Assaad was a seasoned hand for the FBI, having conducted another terrorism sting in South Florida that lured a young man named Imran Mandhai into a bomb plot. (Mandhai was released from prison in March 2015 and deported to Pakistan.)

For Batiste, who is now incarcerated in a low-security facility in Texas, what happened next was nothing more than a street hustle; according to the U.S. government, the interaction between Batiste and Assaad was far more sinister.

“Al-Saidi made it perfectly clear that he was dealing with the police, and if we played the game the way he would lay it out, we’d be able to get a certain amount [of money] and then just basically break off and just go about our business and do all the things that we wanted to do,” Batiste said in a phone interview from prison.

FBI video footage of a meeting between Narseal Batiste and Elie Assaad, an informant posing as a representative of Osama bin Laden.

Batiste and Assaad met in a hotel room to discuss their future together. A hidden FBI video camera recorded their meeting. Following al-Saidi’s advice to dress the part of a Muslim extremist, Batiste wore what appeared to be a turban and carried a walking staff. He looked more like a Halloween partygoer than an Al Qaeda operative. “I’ve never met someone like you,” Batiste confessed to Assaad. “Someone on a mission.” They both sat at a table, where Assaad was eating a room service meal.

“I am a man that is determined. Whether I get any help from you or not, I’m going to do what needs to be done,” Batiste continued in the video, being as vague as possible. “And I’m well on my way of accomplishing that. I’m not far right now.”

“You’re not far? So I’m not wasting my time,” Assaad said, holding a french fry. He then added: “They didn’t bring me from over there just to hear words. I will see some action, or no?”

“Yeah, you’re not wasting your time,” Batiste said. “Absolutely, absolutely.”

MIAMI - JUNE 23: The inside of a warehouse that the FBI raided is viewed through a hole in the door June 23, 2006 in the Liberty CIty neighborhood of Miami, Florida.The US Justice Department was expected to provide details of an alleged plot to attack the Chicago Sears Tower, in which at least seven people who were staying in the warehouse were arrested in Miami.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Inside the Liberty City warehouse rented by the FBI for Narseal Batiste and his friends, viewed through a hole in the door, June 23, 2006, Miami, Florida.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But the Liberty City Seven plot consisted mainly of words. Assaad kept promising to transfer $25,000 to Batiste, who in turn said what he needed to say to string along Assaad. They talked about a harebrained plot to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago. Batiste even boasted he could raise an army in Chicago. As time went by and no money arrived from Assaad, however, Batiste and his group became frustrated. So the FBI, through Assaad, rented them a newer, larger warehouse, complete with a refrigerator stocked with food and a new van they could use — all to keep them on the hook and to keep them plotting.

“At that time, we were just thinking, OK, we got the warehouse, and then inside the warehouse, they had food and everything,” Rothschild Augustin remembered. “Like frozen food, fish and stuff. So we were thinking, wow, the money is coming. Then they had a van in there. So we were thinking that all that was ours, so we just kept going along with it.”

The FBI had wired the new warehouse with cameras. Once they were in the warehouse, Assaad asked Batiste and his guys to swear a “bay’at,” or oath of allegiance, to Al Qaeda.

“It was kind of like we got blindsided. We just show up and, ‘Hey, you are going to take this oath.’ What? What oath? Whatever, we just went through it, uncomfortable,” Rothschild Augustin said.

Batiste was still trying to do whatever was necessary to sucker Assaad out of his money. Here was a guy giving them a warehouse, a van, and a promise to provide $25,000. So what if they had to pledge an oath like Boy Scouts? Each of the men stood before Assaad, gave his name, and then pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. The hustle was finally working, everyone thought.

“The so-called bay’at, oath thing, that was placed upon us — all that was basically acting, just making up stuff,” Batiste recalled.

After the oath, Assaad asked Batiste to do one more thing: take pictures of the FBI office and federal courthouse in Miami. So Batiste and two of the guys gamely drove around Miami taking photographs from their van, with a camera provided by the FBI.

FBI video footage of Elie Assaad administering an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda.

At this point, Batiste’s spiritual adviser, a Chicago preacher named Sultan Khan Bey of the Moorish Science Temple, arrived in Miami and the case transformed into theater of the bizarre. An FBI surveillance vehicle recorded Batiste and his guys picking up Khan Bey and his wife, both dressed in colorful flowing African-inspired garb, from the airport in Fort Lauderdale.

When Batiste explained to Khan Bey what had been happening — the generous Arab guy who gave them a warehouse with a refrigerator full of food in exchange for the oath and taking a few pictures — Khan Bey told the group what should have been obvious all along: They were fools being played by the feds. Khan Bey then held a trial of sorts for Batiste, banished him, and took possession of the warehouse and control of the small group. Another of Batiste’s spiritual advisers, Master G.J.G. Atheea, who unbeknownst to the others had agreed to wear a wire for the FBI, confronted Khan Bey at the warehouse and advocated for Batiste’s return as leader of the group. An argument erupted, and Khan Bey grabbed a gun and shot at Atheea, narrowly missing him.

The gun was legal and registered to Lyglenson Lemorin, a Haitian-born member of the group who had carried it for security detail work in the past. Lemorin had mistakenly left the gun at the warehouse, where Khan Bey found it.

Miami police arrested Khan Bey for the shooting, and federal prosecutors took over the case. Khan Bey cooperated by talking to agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It wasn’t his first run-in with the law. Khan Bey had been convicted of rape in 1977 and attempted murder in 1973. He pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a sentence of 14 months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, with the stipulation that his sentence be served at a facility near his home in Chicago.

During the madness in Miami, the group was falling apart. Lemorin, frustrated by Batiste and his ill-conceived scam, moved to Atlanta. Some of the other guys began to distance themselves from Batiste after the oath, believing he’d pushed the hustle too far. Patrick Abraham ignored all the folly around him by focusing on jobs with the drywall company.

IMG_20160515_192731-1492629195

Patrick Abraham now lives in Haiti, where he teaches English at a school in Port-au-Prince.

Photo: Trevor Aaronson

On June 22, 2006, Abraham was driving to a worksite when he saw a Chevrolet Suburban accelerate past his van and then quickly stop in front of him. “I see people come out of everywhere and pull out guns, aiming at my window,” Abraham remembered. After the FBI agents rushed the car, one asked Abraham a question that perplexed him: “Do you have a bomb in the car?”

“What?” Abraham asked, confused.

“Do you have a bomb in the car?” the agent repeated.

Abraham shook his head, exasperated. “Go ahead with the bullshit, man,” Abraham said, giving the agents permission to search his vehicle.

The others were arrested in similarly dramatic ways. Seven agents, for example, arrested Rothschild Augustin while he was shopping for clothes.

After their arrests, the FBI brought each of the Liberty City Seven individually into interrogation rooms at the bureau’s Miami office. Stanley Phanor, one of the guys who had remained loyal to Batiste throughout, didn’t understand why he had been arrested when he wound up in an interrogation room. A slender, soft-spoken man of Haitian descent, Phanor had gone by the nickname Sonny since he was a child. In the indictment, prosecutors listed him as “Brother Sunni,” perhaps as a way of making him seem more menacing and Islamic.

None of the men accepted a plea deal, and they all stood trial together. The case was bullshit, they agreed. The first trial resulted in a hung jury for six of the seven defendants. Because he’d abandoned the group during the sting, Lemorin was acquitted — but was immediately detained by immigration officials for deportation.

“On the one hand, they just seemed like a hapless group of guys and their defense all along was that they were just going along with it because they were going to rip off [the FBI informant],” said Jeffrey Agron, who was the jury foreman. “There were a fair number of people on the jury who believed that it was a scam. … On the other hand, when asked to pledge an allegiance to Al Qaeda, they did it. When asked to take pictures for the plot, they did take the pictures.”

Family members of some of the seven men charged with plotting to destroy the Sears Tower in Chicago and other buildings, center left in white t-shirts,  look on during a news conference where activists spoke, Thursday, June 29, 2006 at the Liberty City neighborhood warehouse in Miami where the FBI arrested most of the men.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Family members of the Liberty City Seven look on during a news conference on June 29, 2006, at the warehouse in Miami where the FBI arrested most of the men.

Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP

It took three trials to convict five of the seven men. While Lemorin was acquitted in the first trial, Naudimar Herrera, a bit player in the group, was acquitted following the third trial. But five others — Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Phanor, Burson Augustin, and Rothschild Augustin — were convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, among other charges, and sent to prison. Following their convictions, Jeffrey Sloman, who was then the acting U.S. attorney in Miami, said the prosecution “helped make our community safer by rooting out nascent terrorists before they could carry out their threats.” The convicted men received sentences ranging from six to 13 years. If the Justice Department thought the men were dangerous, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons seemed to disagree. The Liberty City Seven members were incarcerated in medium and minimum security facilities once in BOP custody. The FBI paid Assaad $85,000 and al-Saidi $21,000 for their work on the sting.

Burson Augustin was the first of the convicted Liberty City Seven defendants to be released, on September 21, 2012, after serving six years in prison. Instead of returning to Miami, he chose to move to Fort Myers, where he had an aunt and where no one else knew him. “I thought my best bet is to go to a place I don’t know,” Augustin said. “To get a fresh start.”

A well-built man who wears thick dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail, Augustin tried to make an honest living in Fort Myers, but he found it impossible to land a job with a terrorism conviction on his record. So Augustin went back to his old trade, hustling, and was soon busted for dealing cocaine. Because he was on supervised release at the time of the drug deal, his case went to federal court and he was sentenced to another four years in prison.

Lemorin, a Haitian national who had fathered two children in Miami, fell victim to a unique kind of double jeopardy. After being acquitted in the first trial, the evidence from that trial was used against him in immigration court. It proved enough to justify his deportation order.

His deportation was delayed because of the 2010 earthquake, which devastated Haiti. But one year after the earthquake, with the island still recovering from the destruction, Lemorin was on one of the first deportee planes to Port-au-Prince. In some ways, despite being acquitted, his punishment was in line with that of the other defendants: Between the time he was in a holding cell awaiting trial and his time in an immigration detention center, Lemorin spent nearly six years behind bars.

When he arrived in Haiti, he found himself detained yet again. Not knowing who among the deportees was a violent criminal and who wasn’t, Haitian officials threw everyone into detention cells. Those whose families had money could offer bribes to get loved ones released. The ones without family or means were at the mercy of Haitian officials in a filthy prison where cholera was spreading and some detainees had already died.

“There’s feces everywhere,” Lemorin remembered. “Feces on the wall, feces on everything, feces on the place where you take a shower.”

When Lemorin finally got out of detention, his relatives in Leogane gave him a small plot of land on which to live. His mother in Miami collected old cellphones and other electronics and shipped them to Lemorin, who sold them to buy the concrete and rebar to build his new home. He only has walls around the bedroom, but the foundation is laid. In time, he hopes to build up the walls around a small living room and kitchen.

In the United States, he was not only forced to leave behind his mother, but also his son and daughter. In April 2011, Lemorin learned that his 15-year-old son, Lukenson Lemorin, had been killed in a car accident in Miami. U.S. authorities denied Lemorin’s visa application to attend the funeral, he said, and he was forced to observe the service through a grainy Skype connection.

“I got robbed of my son’s life because I beat the case,” Lemorin said, tears welling in his eyes. “Twelve jurors found me not guilty. … And when I’m supposed to be home with my son, I’m in Haiti, deported, sent back for the same trial I beat.”

Two years after arriving in Haiti, Lemorin learned that his old friend Patrick Abraham had also been deported. Patrick had only distant relatives to help him in Haiti. But he had Lemorin, who offered to share his one-room home. On a recent evening, Abraham brought home a watermelon from Port-au-Prince. They sliced up and ate the watermelon together as they watched the kids from the village playing soccer with a deflated ball. Impoverished and isolated from the rest of the world, the pair seemed the world’s least probable terrorists.

For his part, Lemorin isn’t bitter about his circumstances. He doesn’t blame the United States. “I love America,” he said. “America is a great country. But what happened to us, it’s not America that did it. It’s not America — it’s a few people in America that others put their trust in.”

IMG_20160512_153116-1492629193

Burson Augustin is now back in South Florida, where he is trying to rebuild his life after serving a decade in prison.

Photo: Trevor Aaronson

About 700 miles away, in Miami, the rest of the Liberty City Seven are mostly together. Burson and Rothschild Augustin live in a small studio apartment in Broward County, north of Miami. Burson landed a job as a valet on Miami Beach; these days, having learned from his experience in Fort Myers, when he fills out job applications, he just leaves the question about felony convictions blank. It’s best not to try to explain. Rothschild has bounced from job to job; he’s done stints sewing body armor in a factory in an industrial part of town and working in a juice bar in a trendy section of Miami.

Stanley Phanor was released on June 28, 2016, after a short stay at a halfway house. He’s living with his mother in Little Haiti, where Burson and Rothschild Augustin sometimes visit. If the FBI is at all concerned with members of an alleged terror cell associating again in the city of their crime, the three are unaware of it. The Bureau of Prisons does not treat the release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges any differently than that of other criminals, and the FBI does not have a program to track and monitor released terrorists, at least not that it has acknowledged publicly. Phanor and the Augustin brothers haven’t been prohibited from seeing each other, and none of them have seen anything to suggest they are under physical surveillance. As far as they can tell, no one is paying any attention to them at all.

They’ll have a new addition soon. The Liberty City Seven’s alleged ringleader, Narseal Batiste, will be released to a halfway house this summer, a little more than a decade after he purportedly tried to wage a ground war against the U.S. government.

Update: May 31, 2017

This story has been updated to show that the U.S. has now prosecuted more than 800 people on terrorism-related charges.

Reporting for this story was supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Top photo: A search by the FBI of what it called a terror group’s headquarters in Miami, pictured on June 27, 2006, did not yield explosives or attack blueprints.

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Contact the author:

Trevor Aaronsontrevor@​trevoraaronson.com@trevoraaronson

Additional Credits:

Research: Margot Williams.
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