A United States Federal grand jury has charged Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud (a.k.a. Ayanle), a 23-year-old from Columbus, with one count of attempting to provide and providing material support to terrorists, one count of attempting to provide and providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization (both counts punishable by up to fifteen years in prison each), and one count of making false statements to the FBI in an indictment returned in the Southern District of Ohio (which carries a sentence of eight years).
Some of the press reports have been a little muddled, but the indictment is available to read and provides some intriguing details.
Mohamud had a brother, Abdifatah Aden, who travelled to Syria in May 2013, and who then fought for Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, from at least August 2013 until he was killed on or about June 3, 2014.
From September 2013, at the latest, Mohamud was in contact with Aden, and Aden seems to have persuaded Mohamud to join the jihad, talking of the joys of being a “simple soldier” and a mujahideen, and the closeness to paradise.
On Feb. 18, 2014, Mohamud was naturalised. (The indictment doesn’t say where Mohamud originates, but he is African-American and Columbus has a large Somali population.) On Feb. 25, Mohamud received a U.S. passport. Mohamud spoke with an unidentified third man, whom Mohamud had known for three years, and told him of his desire to join Aden, and do jihad by “killing any United States allies on the battlefront.”
Mohamud’s concern about the groups he was to join notably focussed on “which was better and more effective,” though he was certain that the group needed to be Islamist in orientation. Before he left, Mohamud had talked about sending money, specifically $1,000, to Aden, either through an individual or MoneyGram.
Mohamud left the United States on April 18, 2014, boarding a flight bound for Greece. When the plane landed in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 19, Mohamud did not take his connecting flight to Athens. In Turkey, Mohamud stayed in a hotel for one night before meeting a Nusra facilitator in Reyhanli on April 20.
Then comes the complication:
On or about April 25, 2014, Nidal [Mohamud’s Nusra handler] informed Adnan [another individual, presumably Nusra] that “this guy” [presumably Mohamud] had entrusted Nidal with $1,000 for “his brother, Abd-al-Fattah.” Adnan responded that he would assist with the transfer of the money and asked “who is the guy with now?” Nidal responded “the Front.” “Nusra.” Adnan stated “Good, may God facilitate his path.” Nidal responded “Amen, oh God. He wanted to go to ISIS.”
Whether Mohamud joined Nusra or the Islamic State (ISIS) is never made exactly clear.
In Facebook postings, which were obviously viciously sectarian, Mohamud had, in March 2013, “changed his cover photo” to an image of armed fighters, one of whom was holding a flag that “appeared to be the Black Flag used by [ISIS]”. This is certainly debatable since ISIS did not announce itself until April 2013. More suggestive is a photograph uploaded to Mohamud’s Facebook page in December 2013, which also featured “the ISIL emblem”.
When Mohamud began planning his jaunt to Syria in September 2013, the fitna was just beginning, but mostly between ISIS and rebel groups, not ISIS and Nusra. Into the summer of 2013, it is likely that aspirant Salafi-jihadists outside Syria made little distinction between Nusra and ISIS since there was still confusion on the ground. For example, Kataib Jund al-Haq, the Nusra branch in al-Bukamal, switched to ISIS at its announcement in April and then back to Nusra in late June when it was revealed that Ayman az-Zawahiri had cancelled Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to have extended his Iraqi franchise into Syria. In Raqqa City, captured by the insurgency in March 2013 and now ISIS’ de facto capital, “The names and banners of [Nusra] and ISIS remained interchangeable … until July 2013.”
But by December 2013, it is likely that those displaying pro-ISIS sympathies were consciously choosing against al-Qaeda, and by late February 2014, when Mohamud is putting the final touches to his plan to get to Syria, a full-scale war has erupted not just between the rebellion and ISIS but, despite Nusra’s efforts to stay out of it, between ISIS and Nusra, and Zawahiri had expelled ISIS from al-Qaeda. When Mohamud got to Syria, in April 2014, he will have had to take a firm side in this intra-jihadist war. Which side will be easily answered by whose training camp Mohamud attended, but that information—despite strong hints it is ISIS—is not presently available.
Once inside Syria, Mohamud sent images and videos of himself to the unidentified first individual with whom he had spoken before he left, and to a second individual. On June 3, 2014, Mohamud uploaded two images of Aden, now identified as “Abu Hasan,” to Facebook; one of Aden alive and one deceased. On June 8, 2014, Mohamud returned to the United States. Mohamud told people in the U.S. he “was happy about Aden’s death,” and was eager to join him.
Upon returning to the U.S., Mohamud is reported to have said that he had gained training from “a group” in “shooting weapons, breaking into houses, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.” Mohamud said he attended a “military-type training camp” and had done a stint as night watchman. Mohamed finished his training and was about to start fighting for “an organization in Syria,” when “a cleric in the organization told MOHAMUD that he should return to the United States and carry out an act of terrorism.”
Mohamud wanted to kill Americans, “specifically” members of the Armed Forces, policemen, and “any uniformed individuals”. Mohamud’s primary plan was to strike a military facility and the “backup plan” was to attack a prison. Mohamud “talked about doing something big in the United States. He wanted to go to a military base in Texas and kill three or four American soldiers execution style.” The person Mohamud told this to believes Mohamud was trying to recruit him into the plot.
Mohamud was arrested on Feb. 21, 2015 on State charges and will be transferred to Federal custody today.
If Mohamud is convicted he will be the first American to have attempted terrorism inside the U.S. after travelling to Syria to train with, and receive instructions from, Islamist terrorists. Previous would-be attackers related to Syria have been “inspired by” or aided by the networks of, rather than directly ordered by, ISIS and al-Qaeda. (Mehdi Nemmouche, a fanatic who once said, “It’s such a pleasure to cut off a baby’s head,” is awaiting trial after his attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May 2014. Nemmouche would be Europe’s first conviction of somebody who travelled abroad and came back with training—and probably instructions, in Nemmouche’s case from ISIS—from the jihad in Syria and Iraq.)
American security services—almost certainly NSA given the intercepted conversations in the indictment—were all over this case from early on, in Turkey and then in the U.S., but this threat will keep coming because since the schism opened between the Salafi-jihadists it has been evident that their quest for supremacy is going to play out in Western cities. There is no cost to al-Qaeda and ISIS for trying to get “lone wolves” to carry out attacks in the West, and much to gain: much credibility is on offer to the faction that can perpetrate the most spectacular terrorist attack on Western soil—a handy short-cut to funds and recruits that can help tip the balance on the ground in the Fertile Crescent and beyond.