In FBI Sting, Informants Impersonated Islamic State Fighters to Convince Man to Make Propaganda Videos
A thirty-eight year-old Ohio man was targeted in an FBI sting operation and arrested on June 19 on charges of attempting to “provide material support” to the Islamic State, possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, and trafficking marijuana.
The complaint filed against Amir Said Abdul Rahman Al-Ghazi alleges he took “substantial steps toward creating ISIL [Islamic State] propaganda videos.” He allegedly communicated with two individuals he believed to be members of the Islamic state and attempted to purchase an AK-47 assault rifle. He also allegedly expressed a desire to commit terrorism attacks in the United States.
US Attorney Steven Dettelbach of the Northern District of Ohio declared, “Today’s charges are a stark reminder that the radical and dangerous philosophies espoused by groups such as [the Islamic State] can be spread in our community through computers and social media.”
Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony of the FBI’s Cleveland Division stated, “It is clear that no area is immune from the influence of [the Islamic State] and its recruitment machine. We hope this arrest will serve as a strong message to others who may consider providing support to terrorists.”
However, Al-Ghazi “first came to the attention of the Cleveland FBI in December 2012, according to Vicki Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland FBI.” He was under surveillance apparently for about a year and a half until he allegedly pledged “his support to the Islamic State on Facebook.”
Al-Ghazi, who changed his name from Robert McCollum earlier this year, engaged in no direct action with any terrorist group prior to the FBI’s decision to target him. It does not appear he had the resources and capabilities to launch any kind of an attack. The only weapon he possibly possessed prior to government involvement was a pistol. He had not formulated a plan for an attack before the government became involved in his life.
Three paid informants were responsible for initiating plans and pushing him to commit any alleged criminal actions. They collectively acted to remove barriers and obstacles, which, if the FBI had not been involved, may have discouraged and prevented Al-Ghazi from attempting to provide alleged support to terrorism.
FBI’s Paid Informant Has “Extensive Criminal History”
One of the “confidential human sources” (CHS #1), according to an affidavit [PDF] by Special Agent Ryan Presley, is a “paid confidential informant,” who has worked with the FBI for three years. Al-Ghazi engaged with CHS #1 as early as August 2014.
A second “confidential human source” (CHS #2) is a “paid confidential informant,” who has also worked with the FBI for three years. CHS #2 has an “extensive criminal history” that includes “receiving stolen property, domestic violence, assault/kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, weapons under a disability, and fraud-related offenses that spans several years.” CHS #2 received “sentencing benefits/avoided other agency inquiries as the result of actions” of Presley and other Cleveland FBI agents. Al-Ghazi engaged with CHS #2 as early as February 2015.
Al-Ghazi communicated with another “paid confidential informant,” CHS #3, on April 13. Presley was not initially aware that this communication had been ongoing for nearly a year on Twitter. CHS #3 “identified himself/herself as being male, having resided in the United States and United Kingdom, and being an ISIL soldier located in Mosul, Iraq.” (Given this informant communicated with Al-Ghazi for about a year, it is unclear in the affidavit when CHS #3 presented his or herself as an “ISIL soldier.”)
On May 1, CHS #3, who Al-Ghazi believed was an Islamic State fighter in Mosul, “initiated the idea of Al-Ghazi producing ISIL videos in the English language to appeal to those located in the West.” Al-Ghazi allegedly responded that he was interested in documenting the “rise of jihad” in America and then he would “implement chaos to facilitate a way for jihad.” CHS #3 promised him that after his videos were complete they would be uploaded to the Islamic State’s “media arm.”
One of the FBI’s Paid Informants Takes on an Entirely “New Persona”
By June 14, the FBI apparently decided it would be more efficient to have another fake Islamic fighter talking to Al-Ghazi. CHS #1 created an entirely “new persona” and told Al-Ghazi he or she was a member of the Islamic State, who was located in the Middle East. CHS #1 informed Al-Ghazi that as a “member of ISIL” he would have to “assist with the group’s social media efforts” and claimed to be an administrator for an Islamic State-affiliated website. This was enticing to Al-Ghazi.
CHS #1 wanted to know if Al-Ghazi wanted to be “one of our daawah social media freelancers” and asked, “Can you produce short videos?” Al Ghazi allegedly replied, “Yes,” and “Oh yes of what sort.” And Al Ghazi then informed CHS #1 that he would need a laptop.
From the affidavit against Al-Ghazi:
…CHS#1 replied that ISIL was interested in any “short video making a call for Muslims in America to stand for dawlah [Islamic State] and join.” Al-Ghazi then inquired if CHS #1 could assist with editing, to which CHS #1 responded affirmatively…
The following day, June 8, CHS #1 had Al-Ghazi share his ideas for the videos. He allegedly suggested the videos could depict Islamic State members “capturing trucks,” “hitting the oil pipeline,” and conducting “drive bys on cops.” But Al-Ghazi clearly had no knowledge of how to produce such an elaborate propaganda video. He still had no video camera and said he “would require assistance with production.”
How Can We Get Al-Ghazi to Make Propaganda Videos If He Doesn’t Know How to Produce Videos?
The FBI must have recognized it had a problem. They already had to have CHS #2 sell Al-Ghazi a Hewlett Packard laptop in April so he would have a computer to make a video. CHS #1 told Al-Ghazi that “video footage” would not be necessary. He could record audio and that would be “sufficient.”
In the same conversation, CHS #1 told Al-Ghazi that an Islamic State commander, an Amir, had directed him to “keep following” Al-Ghazi. He asked for details for the video he would produce with just audio so he could “translate and share with his ‘Amir’ for approval.” Al-Ghazi explained that it would cover how “Muslims in America have been tricked” to believe jihad is a struggle with one’s self and not a fight on behalf of Allah.
Al-Ghazi claimed to be “formulating a speech and he was “searching for a location to set up a camera,” even though he had no video camera. CHS #1 continued to make Al-Ghazi feel valuable to the Islamic State as he said the video would “serve asa spark for Muslims to act, which would lead to the United States falling in a ‘matter of days.'” Al-Ghazi allegedly replied, “Yes, the infrastructure is weak.”
By June 11, Al-Ghazi had made two videos he was trying to share with the person he thought was going to show his work to the “Amir.” He uploaded a 2-minute and 7-second audio clip to YouTube and passed a link on to CHS #1. It addressed Muslims in America with many of the violent extremist messages discussed previously, and CHS #1 praised Al-Ghazi for “his efforts and stated that the file would be translated and provided to the ‘Amir’ for approval prior to further dissemination.”
Paid Informant Purchased Marijuana from Al-Ghazi 24 Times
Not content enough with targeting Al-Ghazi with a terrorism sting, the sting also involved a War on Drugs component. CHS #2, who once committed a drug crime, purchased marijuana 24 times from Al-Ghazi between February 2014 and June 2015. Months before Al-Ghazi was induced to provide support for terrorism, he was being targeted by a paid informant who was potentially using illegal marijuana purchases to keep tabs on him.
FBI Spent Months Trying to Get Al-Ghazi to Illegally Purchase an Assault Rifle
The FBI tried for months to get Al-Ghazi to purchase an AK-47 that he could wield in a propaganda video, which he would never make because he did not know how to make videos and had no video camera.
On February 22, CHS #2, the paid informant with the extensive criminal background, learned that Al-Ghazi had attempted to purchase an AK-47 in an “undisclosed garage” in Cleveland. When he was presented with “transfer paperwork” and the individual selling it to him asked about his “felony criminal history,” Al-Ghazi disclosed that he had “multiple felony convictions.” The individual would not complete the sale.
Special Agent Presley instructed CHS #2 to help Al-Ghazi obtain an AK-47. On March 3, CHS #2 told Al-Ghazi he had a contact, who could get him the rifle. It would cost $500-$1000. Al-Ghazi allegedly wanted an Ak-47 “with the wood on it” like in videos.
Conversations about the rifle continued to happen until June 19, when a “controlled purchase of an AK-47 assault rifle from an FBI undercover employee” took place. Al-Ghazi allegedly paid $400. This was the same day that a search warrant was served on Al-Ghazi’s residence. The search allegedly uncovered a pistol he had talked about with the paid informants as well as a “sword and an ISIL flag.”
The AK-47 Purchase Shows Al-Ghazi’s “Commitment to Terrorism”
The operation is very similar to the FBI sting operation, which targeted Sami Osmakac.
The FBI, as journalist Trevor Aaronson reported for The Intercept, produced a martyrdom video in a Days Inn in Tampa, Florida, in January 2012. The agency provided “all of the weapons seen in Osmakac’s martyrdom video.” Agents had to convince Osmakac to pay $500 for weapons he would use so they could demonstrate his “commitment to terrorism,” even if he did not kill anyone.
“Sami was so broke and didn’t have any money or any capacity to really make much money. That they had to orchestrate a pretty elaborate scheme through which they gave money to the FBI informant Dabus, who gave a job to Sami for doing little to no work and then Dabus paid Sami $500, which Sami then used to purchase these weapons,” Aaronson said in an interview for the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast.
In this case, it would seem the FBI had to allow Al-Ghazi to sell marijuana to a paid informant so Al-Ghazi would then have money to purchase an AK-47, an act that agents could then claim proved Al-Ghazi’s “commitment to terrorism.” (Note: In the end, Al-Ghazi did not have the $500 he was told he would have to pay. He only came up with $400.)
There is, however, one key difference between the two operations. Osmakac was manipulated into plotting to blow up an Irish bar. The FBI apparently decided not to try and convince Al-Ghazi to carry out a terrorism plot. It was possibly hard enough to manipulate him into producing a propaganda video. And, when it was clear he did not know how to make a video and had no video camera, the FBI did not go to the trouble to help produce a video. Agents settled on having Al-Ghazi record an audio clip that could be posted to YouTube, because that is about all he was capable of doing.
Should Someone Like Al-Ghazi Have Been Targeted in an FBI Sting Operation?
Violence is abhorrent and plotting or supporting any kind of attacks on the US government or military definitely deserves to be condemned and opposed. It is repugnant for anyone to express support for the Islamic State or to suggest that Muslim Americans should join in terrorism attacks. But should someone like Al-Ghazi, who apparently never communicated with any actual member of the Islamic State, be targeted and criminalized for expressing violent extremist beliefs on the Internet? What danger did he ever pose to Americans?
The FBI went beyond seeing if Al-Ghazi had a predisposition to commit a terrorism attack and was on some path to committing violence. Paid informants impersonated Islamic State fighters and pretended to groom Al-Ghazi for a critical position in the group’s media operations. One informant made Al-Ghazi believe an Islamic State commander was highly interested in what Al-Ghazi could do, which probably further solidified Al-Ghazi’s commitment to violent extremism.
Al-Ghazi was convicted of drug abuse in 1996. He was convicted of “having weapons under disability” in 2006, and, in 2010, he was “convicted of two trafficking offenses and having weapons under disability.” He did not graduate from high school.
His mother, Gail Johnson, said her son converted to Islam in prison. This initially “changed him for the better.” But then, three months ago, the two discussed religion over the phone and had a huge disagreement. Johnson could tell something about him changed.
Could it be that conversations he had with an FBI informant were further radicalizing him?
…On March 3, 2015, CHS #2 and Al-Ghazi had a conversation, where in addition to discussing his interest in purchasing an AK-47, he reiterated his intentions to make videos. Al-Ghazi stated that he intended to use the AK-47, along with a black flag as props, when making videos. Al-Ghazi indicated that both of his parents are aware of his intentions, with his mother being particularly unsupportive of him making videos. In response to her disagreement, Al-Ghazi stated that he told her that she obviously hasn’t seen “any jihadi videos.” Al-Ghazi revealed that while he does not intend to make “terrorist videos” and he does not intend to “kill anybody,” he does view his videos as a form of jihad. He went on to describe himself as someone who wants to fight jihad but is unable to do so and making dawah videos can be considered the next highest form according to Islam… [emphasis added]
What the FBI did was take advantage of an economically desperate and possibly mentally ill man. They preyed upon a poor felon and high school dropout with extreme religious views and enticed him to become more involved in terrorism, which Al-Ghazi decided to do because he believed it would give his life more purpose. And this is what the FBI claims keeps American communities and the United States safe.