Harrisburg man charged by feds with aiding ISIS
For at least three would-be jihadists, the road to the Islamic State passed through a tidy, beige row home in Harrisburg less than a mile north of the green dome of Pennsylvania's Capitol.
Inside, 19-year-old Jalil Ibn Ameer Aziz, a U.S. citizen, helped connect an Islamist agent along the Syria-Turkey border with people trying to join the self-declared caliphate that controls swaths of Syria and Iraq, according to a criminal complaint the FBI filed Thursday.
Federal agents traced at least 57 extremist Twitter accounts that operated beginning in July 2014 to the Fulton Street house Aziz shares with his parents — evidence, they say, of a sustained campaign to spread violent jihadist propaganda, threaten American citizens and military, and help three unnamed co-conspirators slip past the international security apparatus between them and the Islamic State.
Just five days before a heavily armed couple with Islamist ties massacred 14 people and wounded more than 20 others in San Bernardino, Calif., agents searched Aziz's home and found a backpack inside his closet. Inside the “go bag” were: “five M4-style high-capacity magazines loaded with 5.56 ammunition, a modified kitchen knife,” over-the-counter medications and a head wrap similar to those worn by Islamic State fighters, the complaint states.
“Aziz operated quietly on behalf of the Islamic State and facilitated others looking to do the same,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia division.
The FBI arrested Aziz on Thursday on one count of conspiring to provide material support and resources to the Islamic State and one count of attempting to do the same. He was arraigned in Harrisburg federal court.
A message left at Aziz's home seeking comment was not returned.
The 57 Twitter accounts Aziz allegedly ran would put him in league with a global echo chamber of online radicals spreading Islamic State propaganda, threats and recruitment, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
Twitter frequently suspends extremist accounts, but users like Aziz return with altered names. So-called “shout-out” accounts retweet the new names, allowing those who were suspended to regain followers quickly.
“The fact that he came back 57 times shows a level of fervency in his beliefs,” said Hughes, co-author of a recent study of Islamic State supporters in the United States.
When radicals return from suspended accounts, it's often with a sense of triumph; the suspension gives them legitimacy in the eyes of other radicals, he said.
Point of contact
The Islamic State agent in Turkey gave Aziz his cellphone number to pass along to the three recruits, something that “doesn't happen overnight,” said Hughes, a former official at the National Counterterrorism Center.
That role as a facilitator for recruitment sets Aziz apart from the majority of Islamic State supporters online.
“You could argue he's a keyboard warrior, but ... providing numbers of people to call, that puts you in a different category,” Hughes said. “For the most part, these guys are just posting the propaganda, but this was a guy who was relatively keyed-in.”
From the attempted attack on an anti-Muslim event in Garland, Texas, in May, to the deadly shooting of Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., to the terrorist massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, the Islamic State's violent inspiration has opened a borderless front in the global fight against the group. As international coalitions step up attacks on the Islamic State, the terrorist group has sought to goad extremists around the world into bloody retaliation.
“The main spokesperson for ISIS, Muhammad al-Adnani, has been pretty clear in his directives: If you can't come to the Islamic State, then carry out an attack where you are,” said Michael Kenney, international affairs professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Studies.
Guns easier than bombs
“It's hard for these guys to make bombs in the U.S., but what they do have access to are guns,” Kenney said. In fact, in one tweet, Aziz comments: “Pennsylvania have very light gun laws its very easy to arm yourself.”
Bomb-making expertise is not as easy as people often think, Kenney said. The chemistry of explosives and inner workings of detonators is not easily learned, he said.
“One possibility is that this is an ISIS-inspired militant who was looking to get access to guns and do something very nasty. On the other hand, it's possible he was just looking to train here and then go to Iraq or Syria,” Kenney said.
Unlike al-Qaida and other international terrorist groups, the Islamic State's identity is bound to the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria, which its leaders see as fulfillment of end-times prophesy.
Posts on Twitter from accounts the FBI says belong to Aziz plead for both killing at home and abroad, according to the complaint.
One threatens that the United States “will pay for #ChapelHillShooting we will make sure you don't live in peace.” Another, addressed to “moderates,” tells them to “give up a life of humiliation — kissing the boot of the kufaar (infidel) oppressors for a life of liberation in #IS.”
Yet another tweet directs a threat at the president: “Know O Obama that we are coming to America and know that we will sever your head in the White House.”
“Yes, the bad guys use social media to radicalize and get each other pumped up,” Kenney said. “But social media is also a tool that the FBI uses to find these guys.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.