Three men from Brooklyn have been arrested and charged with trying to help the Islamic State, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in federal court on Wednesday.
They had also discussed harming President Obama and carrying out attacks in the United States if they were unable to travel overseas. One of the three men was arrested while trying to fly to Turkey, where authorities say he planned to head to the border with Syria to meet with representatives from the Islamic State. Another of the men planned to follow him there next month, while the third man was helping finance some of these travel efforts.
These are the latest in a string of similar arrests, episodes that have highlighted the concerns of federal officials who have publicly worried that young people in the United States could be lured to join the militant group in Syria.
Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, Akhror Saidakhmetov and Abror Habibov conspired “to provide material support and resources…to a foreign terrorist organization,” the complaint said. Saidakhmetov was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York while preparing to fly to Istanbul.
Federal authorities said that the two men who hoped to travel to Syria also said they were willing to carry out attacks in this country. Juraboev mentioned that he would place a bomb on Coney Island if told to do so by Islamic State, while Saidakhmetov said if he could not travel to Syria, he would instead shoot police officers, FBI agents or military members.
Juraboev, 24, and Habibov, 30, are both citizens of Uzbekistan; Saidakhmetov, 19, is a citizen of Kazakhstan. The complaint says that Juraboev and Saidakhmetov, who were set to appear Wednesday at the U.S. courthouse in Brooklyn, are legal, permanent residents of the country; Habibov, who is not described that way, appeared at the U.S. courthouse in Jacksonville, Fla. The three men each face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for attempting to join Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies,” Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney who oversees Brooklyn and the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next attorney general, said in a statement. She continued, “We will vigorously prosecute those who attempt to travel to Syria to wage violent jihad on behalf of ISIL and those who support them.”
These men are part of a growing number of young Americans who have attempted to travel to Syria to join the group. Last year, more than a dozen U.S. citizens were detained for trying to make such a trip, almost all of whom were arrested at airports while preparing to board flights.
Authorities have repeatedly expressed concerns about Islamic State’s attempts to lure Americans and other Westerners to fight for its cause, pointing to the group’s campaigns on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. They are “exploiting the Internet in very slick ways to try to radicalize and inspire people to engage in acts of violence,” FBI Director James B. Comey said in a speech last year. People who travel to Syria could then return home to conduct attacks, he added.
“We estimate upwards of 150 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join extremist groups,” Michael Steinbach, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said during a congressional hearing on homeland security earlier this month.
In recent days, attention in Europe has focused on three missing teenage girls from London who were believed to be traveling to Syria to join the group. At least 500 people are believed to have left Britain for Syria to join militants.
The charges against the Brooklyn men announced on Wednesday “reflect our commitment to finding those who wish to provide material support to ISIL, as well as those committed to fighting on behalf of ISIL, either at home or abroad, and preventing them from doing so,” John P. Carlin, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s National Security division, said in a statement.
Federal agents visited Juraboev at his home last August after seeing postings on a Web site that promoted Islamic State to Uzbek audiences, the complaint said. These postings discussed whether someone in the United States could swear an oath to Islamic State and discussed killing Obama.
“I am in USA now but we don’t have any arms,” the post said. “But is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here? What I’m saying is, to shoot Obama and then get shot ourselves, will it do? That will strike fear in the hearts of infidels.”
Juraboev told the agents that he wrote those messages, said he would travel to Syria if he had the means and said that, given the opportunity, he would harm Obama, according to the complaint. He also told agents about Saidakhmetov, who he said was a friend with the same views and the same desire to help Islamic State.
After he spoke with the federal agents, Juraboev talked online to the administrator of an Islamic State Web site and spoke of needing to get out of the country “with extreme caution” and said he was worried he would be arrested if he tried to leave the country.
Investigators also found that the two men had sought information about how to travel to areas controlled by Islamic State and that they had discussed traveling through Turkey to cross the border with Syria. In December, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov, with Habibov’s help, bought tickets to travel to Turkey in February and March, the complaint says.
Habibov runs mall kiosks that fix cellphones and sell kitchenware in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to the complaint, and Saidakhmetov worked for him at some of these kiosks last year.
A paid informant approached Juraboev at a mosque in September, posing as someone with a similar ideology, though the complaint noted that the informant was used solely to record conversations to help law enforcement establish probable cause before making arrests.
The mosque was not relevant to the investigation, Diego Rodriguez, the assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York office, said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Saidakhmetov told the informant that he wanted to travel to Syria, but said his mother, fearing he would do just that, took away his passport, the complaint says. He later called his mother asking for the passport, but she hung up on him.
[This post has been updated and expanded.]
READ THE COMPLAINT: