THE UNLIKELY JIHADI

by Trevor Aaronson, The Intercept:

The FBI Pressured a Lonely Young Man Into a Bomb Plot. He Tried to Back Out. Now He’s Serving Life in Prison.

HARLEM SUAREZ WAS an unlikely jihadi.

When he was born in Cuba, Suarez had blue skin. His fragile brain had been deprived of oxygen, a tragedy his family points to in explaining his lifelong social and intellectual challenges. As a child, Suarez also suffered several significant head injuries, including being struck by a brick and falling off motorcycles without a helmet on. His parents brought him to Key West, Florida, in 2004, when he was 12 years old. He struggled in the public education system and dropped out of high school. He then took odd jobs in Key West — stocking store shelves, cleaning up restaurants, working in kitchens. Even after more than a decade in the United States, he spoke English without confidence.

In 2015, seeing reports about the Islamic State on cable news, Suarez became intrigued by the terrorist group, he explained to an FBI informant. He was 23 years old at the time and still living in Key West. He was slender and fit, with tattoos covering his chest, stomach, and arms. He wore his brown hair cropped close to his scalp, and a goatee covered the bottom of his chin.

Suarez began to identify as Muslim and gave himself an Arabic name: Almlak Alaswd, which translates to “dark angel.” He said he wanted to be part of ISIS, but he knew little about the group or its rival organizations. He thought Osama bin Laden had founded ISIS, and he admitted to an FBI informant that he didn’t know what Hamas was or how the group was different from ISIS.

Suarez created a Facebook profile and began posting ISIS propaganda and videos. He seemed to be searching for ISIS members in his ignorant attempt to become one. Facebook had already taken down four of Suarez’s previous profiles for improper content; each time, Suarez just created a new one and continued to post ISIS material. His online activity attracted the FBI’s attention, and an agent in Miami asked a rookie informant named Mohammed Skaik to help determine if Suarez might be a threat.

 

A U.S. military officer in the inactive reserves, Skaik was born in the Middle East and moved to the U.S. at age 16. He was fluent in Arabic, his first language, and he spoke English with a flawless American accent. When the FBI recruited Skaik in late 2014, he was a research assistant at a Florida medical school, and he had ambitions to study to be a doctor. The FBI offered what was essentially a part-time gig posing online as a man sympathetic to and interested in ISIS.

Following FBI instructions, Skaik sent Suarez a Facebook friend request. “Hey, brother, can you add me, please?” Skaik wrote. “I have something extremely important to communicate to you.”

Suarez accepted the friend request. On his profile, Suarez said he lived in Miami. Skaik was just north in West Palm Beach, so not knowing that Suarez was actually in Key West, the informant assumed he and Suarez were practically neighbors.

“It’s good to see someone around here that lives nearby me,” Skaik wrote on Facebook. “A word of advice: I’ve been down your alley and got my accounts taken down numerous times. I would be very careful not to post things onto my account relating to my location. Just an advice from a brother to another. I hope to get to know you.”

Suarez replied by sending Skaik his cellphone number, and they began to exchange text messages. Suarez explained that he wasn’t in Miami but was instead “more down,” referring to the Florida Keys to the south.

“I have a car,” Skaik texted. “We can go to the mosque and train together.”

“I was trying to make timers bomb,” Suarez told him.

The message startled Skaik, he later told a jury. He didn’t anticipate that Suarez would so readily disclose his attempts to a build a bomb. Skaik sent a message to his FBI handler, and Suarez quickly became a priority. Within days, Skaik was making the four-hour drive to Key West. He and Suarez first met in the parking lot of Japanese steakhouse chain Benihana. Suarez drove up on a black and white Yamaha moped. He was wearing black sunglasses and a black, long-sleeve, button-down shirt. “How you doing?” Suarez said, greeting Skaik. Still seated on his moped, Suarez gave the informant a hug. “You really are driving a moped,” Skaik said with surprise.

He and Skaik walked to a wooded area near the Key West airport. Once they were in a secluded spot, Suarez opened his bag and showed off his equipment. He had two body armor vests. He had a handgun. “I show you one of these, brother,” he told Skaik, who secretly videotaped the encounter. “I’ve been getting ready, boy. This shit cost a lot of money.” He then pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle.

Suarez’s small arsenal seemed to confirm the FBI’s initial concerns. But there were also early indications that Suarez might have been more of an aimless big talker than a violent jihadi. He was not familiar with Dabiq, the ISIS magazine that had become essential reading for wannabe ISIS members, and he wasn’t watching ISIS propaganda videos on the dark web but instead on CNN. When the informant asked him how he communicated with people overseas, suggesting that encrypted methods would be most appropriate, Suarez was stumped and seemed to know nothing about encryption.

“Do you use, like, WhatsApp?” the FBI informant asked.

“Well, I use Facebook,” Suarez replied. “I was trying to use, um, how you call this thing — Tweeter?”

“Twitter,” Skaik corrected.

Suarez admitted that he didn’t have a plan of attack, and he also was under the impression that ISIS members had been flowing into the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border by the hundreds with the help of drug cartels. “We ain’t alone, you know?” he told Skaik with authority. “But it’s, it’s hard to find another of us, like — I don’t know why.”

Suarez’s research skills left a lot to be desired. He told the informant there wasn’t a mosque in Key West. (There was one, about 5 miles from his apartment.) And he seemed to know little about Islam. (“I heard that you cannot, you cannot, um, eat pork, right?” he asked Skaik.)

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