A 23-year-old resident of Tampa, Florida, has been arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari was arrested on 24 May 2020, after he acquired weapons that he intended to use in a terrorist attack aimed at mass casualties. Al-Azhari had previously been convicted, and served a three-year sentence in Saudi Arabia for terrorism-related charges, before moving to the US in 2018.
"From Mr. Al-Azhari's attempt to acquire firearms through unlawful channels to his desire to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, it was clear Mr. Al-Azhari's intention was to carry out an act of violence," said John C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, in a statement.
Planning a Terror Attack
According to the complaint, Al-Azhari wished to carry out attacks on behalf of ISIS. He had been planning and preparing, including procuring weapons, to execute an operation for the designated terrorist organization.
Al-Azhari attempted to purchase several firearms in recent months and managed to acquire a Glock pistol and a silencer. During the course of the investigation, while he was under the FBI's scanner, he attempted to gather firearms such as AK-47 rifles from an undercover FBI agent, who was operating the account of an E-bay seller with his consent.
He had already procured certain gun parts from the seller, post which the FBI approached the seller and began using the account to initiate conversations regarding buying of different weapons. The FBI was also aided by a confidential human source addressed as "CHS-1".
Scouting For Potential Targets
Al-Azhari was also an 'admirer' of Omar Mateen—the man responsible for the mass shooting at the nightclub, Pulse, in 2016—and hoped to perpetuate a similar act resulting in mass casualties.
In addition to making preparations for the attack, he was scouted for potential targets in Tampa, including the Honeymoon Island State Park. Al-Azhari is said to have also rehearsed sections of an attack and the statements that he would make while committing the act or in relation to it.
Past Terror-related Convictions
This is not the first time that Al-Azhari has been arrested or convicted on terrorism-related crimes. In 2015, he was convicted in Saudi Arabia for charges that involved traveling to Syria to participate in the fight led by several terrorist organizations against the Syrian government.
He was convicted for possessing extremist propaganda material and for expressing extremist views, and for attempting to join a terrorist group, Jaysh al-Islam. Additionally, he was accused of plotting with two other co-conspirators, which also included his father. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Post the serving of his sentence, Al-Azhari moved to the US in December 2018.
Violation and Punishment
In attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, the accused is in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 23398. "The fact that AL-AZHARI has acquired, and attempted to acquire, firearms through non-commercial and unlawful channels suggests that he is trying to avoid law enforcement scrutiny," a section of the complaint read. A conviction for the violation carries with it a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.
Co-operative Effort to Bring Him Down
The case was investigated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, which included various agencies such as Homeland Security Investigations, the Tampa Police Department, and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, among several others.
Michael F. McPherson, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Tampa Division, who was involved in the investigation thanked the individuals whose co-operation led to the arrest of Al-Azhari. "We were also fortunate to gain the cooperation of multiple citizens who willingly and bravely provided their assistance during this investigation," he said.