Two Tucson men suspected of trying to join the Islamic State will remain in custody while their court proceedings unfold, a federal magistrate judge ordered this week.
Ahmed Mahad Mohamed, 21, and Abdi Yemani Hussein, 20, were arrested Friday at Tucson International Airport after a series of communications with an undercover FBI agent about flying to Egypt and joining the Islamic State, U.S. District Court records show. The two face charges of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Both Mohamed and Hussein came to Tucson as refugees from Somalia. Mohamed is a permanent resident of the United States and Hussein is a refugee.
The FBI began investigating Mohamed in August 2018, when Mohamed started a conversation online with an FBI agent pretending to be someone overseas. Mohamed told the agent he was a Somali supporter of the IS who wanted to join and fight in Syria and achieve martyrdom.
Mohamed told the agent he wanted to make it to Syria and said, “if I go to Syria I want to be the beheading person ... I want to kill them so many I am thirsty for their blood,” using Arabic phrases to refer to disbelievers.
Mohamed told the undercover agent many times that he wanted to be the “beheading guy,” according to court records.
Hussein said he wanted to travel around the world and “make explosion,” and indicated if someone tried to stop him he would come to Tucson and the “city will die.”
He said the ceremony after the last presidential election was a good target and he wanted to “blow up the White House,” according to court documents.
Magistrate Judge Maria S. Davila ordered Hussein be detained on Monday. At a hearing Wednesday morning, Mohamed wore shackles and a black-and-white prison jumpsuit.
Mohamed’s court-appointed lawyer Thomas Hartzell urged Davila to “ignore the hype” and “ignore the hoopla” caused by President Trump tweeting about the case on Tuesday.
Instead, Davila should consider the fact that Mohamed has “absolutely no criminal history” and no issues with substance abuse, Hartzell said.
Mohamed has strong ties to the community and lives with his parents and sisters, Hartzell said. Mohamed completed high school and has worked 40 or more hours a week since graduation.
In terms of Mohamed being a flight risk, pretrial services found that Mohamed’s father was a suitable custodian for Mohamed, Hartzell said.
A GPS monitor and other restrictions would be enough to ensure Mohamed does not fail to appear at his court hearings, Hartzell said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Hakala said Mohamed was an “extreme flight risk” and should be detained. Mohamed planned to “leave a country that he hates” so he could join a foreign terrorist group, he said.
One message from Mohamed said “If I had wings I would fly. LOL,” Hakala said. LOL is a slang term for “laugh out loud.”
On July 25, Mohamed told the undercover agent that he and Hussein had bought round-trip plane tickets to Egypt for the next day, Hakala said.
On July 26, agents watched the undercover agent drive Mohamed and Hussein to the airport and drop them off at the curb. Mohamed and Hussein then checked in for their flight, got boarding passes, went through security and were waiting for their flight when they were arrested, Hakala said.
At the time of his arrest, Mohamed had $10,000 in cash on him, Hakala said.
Earlier in the hearing, Hakala described Mohamed’s “calculating and cautious steps” that included saving $2,000, selling his vehicle for $4,500, and arranging a cover story of studying abroad.
Mohamed told the undercover agent that “his family would contact law enforcement if they knew what he was thinking and what he was planning,” Hakala said.
In terms of Mohamed being a possible danger to the community, defense attorney Hartzell said Mohamed was recruited by an undercover FBI agent posing as a jihadi recruiter at a mosque and “there’s no proof that these ideas originated anywhere else than within the imagination of this undercover agent.”
Mohamed did not threaten anyone directly and did not possess any destructive devices or firearms, Hartzell said.
Prior to ordering his detention, Davila told Mohamed she had considered the nature of the accusation against him, which she considered a crime of violence.
“This is not a momentary decision that you made,” Davila said, describing the planning and actions Mohamed took over the course of months.
She said the location of Tucson so close to the U.S.-Mexico border added to the risk Mohamed might flee.
She noted he had lived in the community for five years and his lack of criminal history or substance abuse. She also noted his family support, but pointed out Mohamed’s plans unfolded “all while keeping information from your family.”