A twenty year-old college student in New York was arrested and charged with knowingly “conspiring to provide material support and resources” to the self-declared Islamic State. He was arrested, along with an alleged co-conspirator early in the morning on June 13, after law enforcement vehicles realized an undercover operation was botched because their targets recognized government agents were tailing them.
Munther Omar Saleh is a US citizen, who was living in Queens, New York. Saleh was enrolled in a college that “specializes” in aeronautics.
Conspicuously, neither the FBI, Justice Department nor the New York Police Department (if they were involved) has put out a press release announcing how pleased they are that agents were able to stop someone who was allegedly plotting a terrorism attack. Nor was a release with basic details of the case against Saleh published.
NBC News reported the FBI has accused Saleh of “plotting to carry out some kind of unspecified terror-related attack in New York.” He allegedly had two co-conspirators, including a 17 year-old who was arrested along with Saleh.
Like previous arrested individuals accused of providing material support to the Islamic State, there was no known plan for an attack formulated by Saleh. There certainly was no plan before a “confidential human source” or informant initiated the first communications with Saleh on May 7.
It also does not appear “judicially authorized” surveillance ever uncovered any evidence that Saleh was being directed by any members of the Islamic State. He did not obtain or create any explosives to carry out an attack.
What threat, if any, did Saleh ever pose?
According to an affidavit signed by FBI Special Agent Christopher J. Buscaglia [PDF], in 2014 and 2015, Saleh sent messages on Twitter that indicated support for the Islamic State fighters. He tweeted, “i fear AQ could be getting too moderate.” He sent tweets in January and February expressing “support for the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris, France; the immolation of Jordanian Air Force pilot Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh by ISIL; the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto by ISIL; and the establishment of an ISIL military presence and Sharia law in New York City.”
As repugnant as all of those messages happen to be, those messages still fall into the realm of speech that should be protected by the First Amendment. None of them indicate that Saleh is clearly threatening a terrorist attack.
The affidavit states, on March 9, Saleh emailed himself propaganda produced by an organization, Ghuraba Media Foundation, which produces content intended to support the Islamic State and the terrorist group’s mission. In May, he tweeted his support for those who committed the attack in Garland, Texas, against the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest. And, in February, his messages on Twitter suggested he has been translating videos published by the Islamic State from Arabic into English.
Again, though entirely lawful, all of this is despicable and repulsive conduct. But is this the conduct of a homegrown terrorist, someone on the path to carrying out an attack?
On March 22, a Port Authority police officer saw Saleh walking with a lantern as he approached the George Washington Bridge on the Fort Lee, New Jersey side. Saleh apparently wanted a ride across the bridge. The officer directed him to a bus terminal. Saleh did not take a bus.
Saleh was on the George Washington Bridge a day later. He looked around “repeatedly while walking along the bridge.” The Port Authority police officer had him come to the Port Authority office in Fort Lee to answer some questions.
Law enforcement personnel from the Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned Saleh about why he was going to New Jersey, what he thought of the Islamic State, and whether he knew anyone who talked about traveling to Syria. Saleh allegedly said he “was not sure” about the Islamic State and heard “they were murdering children.” He claimed to disapprove of the Islamic State and said he “did not condone violence.”
Saleh entered his password into his computer for JTTF personnel and “consented to a search.” Agents viewed files on his computer, including translations of writings and videos produced as propaganda for the Islamic State. “Saleh claimed during the interview never to have viewed either file and denied ever translating documents or working in any translation capacity,” according to the affidavit.
It may be true that Saleh was not working in a “translation capacity” for the Islamic State, but the FBI probably sees anyone translating such materials as someone working for the Islamic State. Otherwise, why would they be translating the materials?
Regardless, law enforcement suspected Saleh was trying to conceal some of his activities from agents. Agents reasoned that he was going to school to learn about electrical circuitry, which could be used to make explosives. Agents had evidence from surveillance that he had accessed websites for the US Army Rangers and US Army Special Forces to look at “training and equipment” and “gear and weapons.” He was looking at assault rifles, tomahawks, ranger-series fixed blade knives, and axes, which Islamic State supporters have used in previous attacks. So, the FBI escalated their operation against Saleh.
On May 7, a “confidential human source” or informant, who had “previously provided reliable information” to the FBI, “initiated a conversation with Saleh.”
Saleh asked where the informant was located. The informant gave a deliberately provocative answer: “dar al harb,” which refers to “regions of the world where Islam does not dominate.” The informant then said, “Northeast Coast.”
Next, Saleh wanted to know if the informant was in America. The informant told Saleh he or she was in America. Saleh stated, “Well, I’m in NY and trying to do an Op.”
This informant was apparently not that good at what he or she was doing for the FBI because not long after Saleh said, “I’m very sorry, but I was ordered by dawlah officials not to talk to anyone.” Essentially, Saleh claimed officials he believed to be with ISIS (whether he was communicating with these people or not) did not want him to communicate with the informant anymore.
Inarguably, there is suspicious activity throughout May. The affidavit indicates Saleh was emailing himself “lists of components that could be used to construct a pressure cooker bomb.” He apparently went into a “spy” store in Queens but bought nothing. He searched the internet for “watch,” “casio,” and “vacuum,” which could potentially have been an effort to find information on how to construct an explosive device.
Throughout May, the FBI spied on Saleh and observed him meeting with an unnamed co-conspirator (CC1) on a nearly daily basis. There were allegedly more searches for products the FBI believed could be components for a pressure cooker bomb. Saleh also bought a watch on May 19. On May 28, Saleh “viewed images on the internet of various notable New York City landmarks and tourist attractions,” which the FBI believes were potential targets of an attack. And, on May 31, FBI surveillance caught Saleh searching for information about surveillance cameras, which the FBI thinks was done so Saleh could learn about evading law enforcement.
On May 31, Saleh was allegedly looking at images of weapons, such as a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol. The next day he was visiting sporting goods pages to search for “hunting gear.” Then, about a week later, he searched for pages about “knives, ammunition, a crossbow, a tool used to break glass, a bulletproof vest, a chemical mask, masks, costumes and various disguises including beards and wigs.” He was apparently also interested in remote controlled helicopters and drones too.
The day of his arrest, June 13, Saleh and CC1 were in a green Jeep driven by a second co-conspirator (CC2). They went to a car wash then the second co-conspirator allegedly performed some driving maneuvers that could be used to evade law enforcement.
“At approximately 4 am, while the Green Jeep was stopped at a red light on 20th Avenue in Queen near the Whitestone Expressway, Saleh and CC1 exited the green Jeep and took several steps towards the law enforcement vehicle before returning to the green Jeep. Moments later, Saleh and CC1 stepped out of the green Jeep again and began to run towards the law enforcement vehicle, Saleh from one side of the vehicle, and CC1 from the other side of the vehicle. The operator of the law enforcement vehicle went in reverse to avoid the attack by Saleh and CC1.”
Saleh and CC1 were both arrested. They allegedly claimed they had known for multiple days they were being followed by multiple vehicles. (What happened to CC2 is not specified in the affidavit, which is somewhat peculiar.)
It is possible that Saleh and CC1 were planning some kind of an attack. Another possibility is that they believed they were under surveillance by the US government, an enemy of the Islamic State, and thought they needed to take some kind of action to defend themselves. Saleh had already been interrogated by JTTF in March and likely figured out he was being monitored.
What is described in the affidavit, if it all went down as the FBI claims, does seem suspicious. There is probably enough evidence to successfully convict Saleh of conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State because very little is required for prosecutors to prove a conspiracy. That does not necessarily mean Saleh ever posed a threat, but that the government has ample tools to put Saleh in prison for whatever he may have been doing.
And, whether Saleh should have been targeted by the FBI when agents chose to target him based on his social media activity is an issue worthy of debate, especially since it appears he was not working directly for the Islamic State at all.