On Wednesday, a federal court in Brooklyn sentenced Akhror Saidakhmetov, a Kazakh citizen, to 15 years in jail for conspiring to join the Islamic State and ordered that he be expelled from the United States when his sentence is completed.
In February 2015, three Central Asians were arrested — two in New York and one in Florida — for a plot to support the Islamic State by traveling to Syria via Turkey or committing attacks on law enforcement in the United States.
Saidakhmetov, 19 at the time, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport on February 25, 2015 holding a ticket to Turkey he’d bought the week before. His roommate, Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, a 24-year-old Uzbek citizen, was arrested in Brooklyn. He had previously purchased a ticket for a March flight to Turkey. Abror Habibov, a 30-year old Uzbek citizen, was arrested in Florida and accused of financing Saidakhmetov’s effort to join the Islamic State.
The case was later widened, with the additional arrests of Dilkhayot Kasimov, Akmal Zakirov, and Azizjon Rakhmatov all on charges of attempt and conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State.
All three original defendants have since pled guilty: Juraboev in August 2015, Saidakhmetov in January 2017, and Habibov in August 2017.
When laid out, the conspiracy itself seems almost comical.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s original complaint against Juraboev, Saidakhmetov, and Habibov the investigation began in 2014. On August 8, 2014, Juraboev, posting under the name “Abdulloh ibn Hasan” (essentially an Arabic version of his real name), stated his willingness to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State:
Greetings! We too wanted to pledge our allegiance and commit ourselves while not present there. I am in USA now but we don’t have any arms. 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 the infidels.
A week later, Juraboev was visited by federal agents for whom he apparently unlocked his cellphone, admitted to making the post, and said he would travel to Syria to join the Islamic State but lacked funds. He also said he’d harm then-President Barack Obama but also lacked means and thus had no imminent plan. In another interview with federal agents, Juraboev mentioned that his friend and coworker, Saidakhmetov, shared his views.
After this encounter with law enforcement, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov continued to research and reach out via the internet to Islamic State sympathizers and organizers. In September, the FBI engaged the two via a “confidential informant” posting as “ideologically sympathetic” at a mosque. The two men and the CI discussed plans to travel to Syria via Turkey.
At one point, according to the complaint, Saidakhmetov told the CI in September 2014 that he wanted to go to Syria but that “his mother had feared he would do so and took his passport so he could not travel.” He said he’d tried to dupe his mother by saying he was traveling to Uzbekistan to visit relatives but go to Turkey instead.
Habibov enters the picture as the money man, promising the funds needed for the two men to purchase tickets and supplies and going with Saidakhmetov to a travel agent in Coney Island where he purchased his ticket to Turkey.
The men later charged — Dilkhayot Kasimov, Akmal Zakirov, and Azizjon Rakhmatov — were associates of Habibov and stand accused of providing and raising funds for Saidakhmetov.
The case is a victory for U.S. law enforcement. Two men who were intent on boarding a plane to go to Turkey and then on to Syria to join the Islamic State were stopped from doing so. Those who helped plan and fund his attempt have either pled guilty or face charges. But they were a few bumbling wannabes.
The real importance of the case, however, will be the lessons drawn about the hows and whys of terrorist recruitment.
Notably, when Juraboev was interviewed the first time by federal agents, his comments pointed to the way in which the internet atmosphere aids in simplifying and distorting U.S. policy into motivation for terrorists. The original complaint said that in his first interview with federal agents back in August 2014, Juraboev mentioned that he didn’t like Obama “because of his role in killing Muslims through his support of Israel and the recent bombing of ISIL…” This is a fairly common refrain among jihadist communities, which the United States lacks the ability to effectively counter. (Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital probably won’t help in this regard).
It’s also worth noting that while all the individuals involved are Central Asians, their regional origin doesn’t seem terribly involved in the plot. None of the discussions in the original complaint document mentioned traveling to Central Asia to get revenge on the autocratic governments there. The men involved organized within their network of friends and contacts, i.e. Central Asians, but if they’d all been from some other Muslim-majority region the story would read much the same.