Would-Be Jihadist Caught in the U.S.
A U.S. citizen arrested Oct. 22 in Honolulu has been charged with making false statements to law enforcement agencies on matters concerning international terrorism, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The man, identified as Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, has been under investigation since 2008, when he first drew the attention of authorities by attempting to travel to Pakistan with the intention of joining a militant group. His operational security errors — purchasing one-way plane tickets, attempting foreign travel to countries with active militant groups, running jihadist websites, publicly promoting jihadist ideology and withholding documents from military recruiters — gave authorities many reasons to investigate him. His case is another example of how would-be jihadists with a lack of militant training and an ignorance of intelligence-collection efforts often expose themselves in their quest to join Islamist militant groups abroad.
Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, a U.S. citizen arrested Oct. 22 in Honolulu, Hawaii, has been charged with providing false information to federal law enforcement authorities on matters involving international terrorism, according to a criminal complaint released Oct. 26 by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York. Shehadeh, a 21-year-old New York City native who moved to Hawaii in 2009, first came to the attention of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the FBI in June 2008 when he bought a one-way airline ticket to Pakistan from New York (he later confessed he intended to join a militant group active in that country). He subsequently attempted to travel to Jordan, Somalia and Iraq for the same reason, but was never able to get past customs officials in the various destinations.
Shehadeh committed a number of operational security blunders that alerted authorities to mark him for investigation, such as purchasing one-way plane tickets, attempting to travel to countries with active militant groups, running jihadist websites, publicly promoting jihadist ideology and withholding documents from U.S. military recruiters whom he had approached about potentially enlisting. However, these sorts of mistakes by grassroots jihadists are nothing new, and often a lack of experience or militant tradecraft is one of the best assets for Western intelligence agencies hoping to foil their activities.
Prior to boarding his flight to Pakistan in 2008, NYPD and FBI investigators questioned Shehadeh but eventually allowed him to depart. Upon arriving in Pakistan, Shehadeh was stopped by immigration authorities and forced to return to the United States, either due to a tip-off or the general suspicion brought about by purchasing a one-way ticket. Further investigation revealed Shehadeh was running jihadist websites that posted messages from al Qaeda leaders, as well as his own messages and videos. He was likely already being monitored by the United States due to his Internet activity, and the ticket purchase probably instigated a full-scale investigation. He initially told investigators he was traveling to Pakistan to attend a madrassa, though he did not have one chosen. A month later he told investigators he was going to attend a university in Islamabad and to attend his friend’s wedding, though he was unable to name the friend. Later he admitted to authorities that his real intention was to connect with militant groups.
Shehadeh further drew the interest of authorities in October 2008 when he approached U.S. Army recruiters in New York City and again provided false information about his travels. He said his only foreign travel was to Israel and refused to produce his current passport, the reason given by the military when his attempt to enlist was later denied. According to the criminal complaint filed in New York’s Eastern District Court, his real intention was to desert once he was stationed overseas and join a militant group. Associates of Shehadeh who were witnesses in the investigation verified this claim.
He moved to Hawaii in 2009 and then bought tickets to fly to Mogadishu, home of al Shabaab, the Somali al Qaeda franchise. He was told by FBI agents at the time that he had been placed on the U.S. government’s “No-Fly” list and would not be allowed to depart for Mogadishu. He then approached FBI agents to try to persuade them to take him off the list in return for becoming an informant. The FBI allowed him to believe he had become an informant, though it did not extend to him any of the legal protections that come with the status and used the information he provided them to reveal his own activities, essentially extracting a confession.
Instead of being charged with aiding or joining a terrorist group — despite his attempts, Shehadeh failed to do either — he was arrested and charged with providing false information to authorities. Shehadeh showed his inexperience and lack of training by pursuing jihadist groups in a way that would alert authorities. Indeed, these easily identifiable operational security failures are one reason why jihadist leaders advise potential Western recruits to be cautious traveling to training camps.
If it is likely they will be picked up or stopped by authorities, recruits are encouraged by their jihadist mentors to carry out simple attacks in their home countries. So far, such public advice has failed to sway its audience, as multiple U.S. citizens have been arrested before they could reach training camps abroad, such as Zachary Chesser, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, Carlos Eduardo Almonte, Shaker Masri and Sascha Boettcher. In fact, Shehadeh had tried to contact Yemeni-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who previously had advised Maj. Nidal Hasan to carry out an armed assault at Fort Hood, but Shehadeh did not heed this type of advice. The combination of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement limiting Shehadeh’s ability to meet up with experienced jihadists to pick up the technical knowledge and skills needed to conduct a terrorist attack, along with his own operational blunders and his intent failing to match his ability, prevented this case from materializing into anything dangerous.
Read More at Stratfor.com
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