A Maryland man is behind bars after the feds say he pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. Meghan McCorkell reports.
A Harford County man pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and received thousands of dollars from overseas to carry out an attack, federal prosecutors said Monday.
Mohamed Elshinawy, 30, of Edgewood was arrested Friday on charges of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and other offenses, federal prosecutors said.
The criminal complaint filed against Elshinawy lays out extensive communications the FBI says he had with contacts overseas and alleges he received at least $8,700 he believed was from the Islamic State terror group, sometimes called ISIL.
"When confronted by the FBI, he lied in order to conceal his support for ISIL and the steps he took to provide material support to the deadly foreign terrorist organization," Assistant U.S. Attorney General John P. Carlin said in a statement.
"He will now be held accountable for these crimes."
It is not clear in court papers if prosecutors believe the money wired to him was from the terrorist group or from a sympathizer.
Federal authorities have brought charges against dozens of people they say are Islamic State supporters, but terrorism analysts said the allegation that Elshinawy might have received funding from the group is new.
Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, said the charges represent another example of ISIL's reach from its bases in the Middle East and the group's hope to cause mayhem in the United States.
"It appears they have enough money to be able to set out a lot of lures, hoping that one lure will catch somebody who's willing to engage in dangerous activity," Greenberger said.
A couple who investigators believe were inspired by ISIL killed 14 people in a shooting rampage this month at a government facility in San Bernardino, Calif. The group, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed scores in Paris, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
Elshinawy is the first person to be charged by federal prosecutors in Maryland for alleged ties to the group. It was unclear Monday where he was being held.
No one answered the door Monday afternoon at his address, a townhouse in the 300 block of McCann St. in a neighborhood called Harford Commons, which has several blocks of identical green-and-white one-story homes. A neighbor said she had seen FBI agents in the area but assumed it had to do with drug dealing rather than a terrorism case.
Agents first interviewed Elshinawy in July, after learning about a suspicious $1,000 wire transfer he received from Egypt, according to the criminal complaint.
Elshinawy initially said the money was from his mother before changing his story and admitting he had been in contact with a childhood friend who had been arrested in Egypt on terror charges, an FBI agent wrote in the complaint. The friend had fled to Syria, but Elshinawy said the friend put him in touch with an ISIL operative who sent the money, the FBI says.
Elshinawy said the operative did not give him any guidance on how to carry out an attack but cited the shooting at a contest featuring cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas, as an example, according to the FBI. Two gunmen opened fire outside the contest in May.
Elshinawy contended he was really conning the ISIL operative — including concocting a plot to make it look as though he sold printers on eBay to provide cover for PayPal transfers — and did not plan to do anything.
"Rather, he claimed he saw an opportunity to make money and take it from 'thieves,' and felt that the FBI should reward him for what he had done," the agent wrote.
As they probed further, the investigators wrote that they concluded that wasn't true. They say Elshinawy had pledged allegiance to ISIL on social media, had discussed making an explosive device and traveling to live in ISIL-controlled territory, and had concealed how much money he had received.
It's not clear from the court document what connection the contact — who is not identified in the court papers — had with ISIL. Seamus Hughes, who studies ISIL at George Washington University, said the lack of a clear plot suggests the contact was not a core member of the terrorist group.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said the case shows how terrorists exploit technology to find recruits and attempt to communicate in secret.
"Federal agents and prosecutors are working tirelessly and using every available lawful tool to disrupt their evil schemes," he said.
While the case shows some similarities with others where authorities allege people have been radicalized by reading online propaganda, Hughes said the allegations also show how personal connections — like a childhood friend — can lead someone down a path to extremism.
"Real-world relationships matter," said Hughes, a former counterterrorism official. "You're more likely to be engaged in this ideology if your friends, or your brother, or your sister are also interested."
The FBI said that after he was interviewed in July, Elshinawy took steps to make it look as if he had cut off communication with his childhood friend. But as they probed his electronic communications, investigators said, they traced a web of email accounts, cellphone numbers and social media platforms that Elshinawy had used to discuss terrorism.
Writing in Arabic, Elshinawy told the friend on Feb. 17 that he had pledged allegiance to ISIL, the FBI said, and in April told him he had many targets in mind.