The former Edison High School theater student had changed his Facebook name to “Mujahid Ibrahim Abu Tuabah.” He wrote reverently of four Twin Cities friends who had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and boasted that the terror group “will never be defeated.”
Asked online if he was ready for jihad himself, he paused: “I have to make my faith stronger if I want to die as a martyr,” the Minneapolis 19-year-old wrote, likely unaware that he was corresponding with an undercover New York officer.
Two years later, he is still in Minneapolis and, according to interviews and court records reviewed by the Star Tribune, one of at least a half-dozen Minnesotans at the center of ongoing FBI investigations into ISIS support.
The cases include a 35-year-old father of four allegedly enlisted to help edit a popular ISIS propaganda magazine, a Sauk Rapids hacker reported to the FBI by fellow hackers troubled by his boasts of jihadist connections, and a south metro jujitsu instructor who helped rationalize suicide attacks for a man since convicted on terrorism charges in Indiana.
More than a year after the federal government completed its landmark prosecution of 11 young Twin Cities men — the largest terrorism conspiracy case ever charged in the United States — the records show that the FBI is still probing the possibility of homegrown terrorists in the state.
Support ISIS ‘till we die’
Details outlined in newly unsealed FBI search warrant applications offer a timeline spanning ISIS’ rise as a grisly terrorist organization through today’s inspired, and sometimes directed, domestic attacks by its devotees. Across Minnesota, agents have searched homes, sifted private social media messages and scanned electronic devices for evidence of plans to travel overseas, retaliate against a federal judge or otherwise help solicit terrorism worldwide.
“We are going to continually be pressed with this issue of individuals, often very young, who are empowered through technology to break federal laws … with the click of a button,” said William Braniff, executive director of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
The Star Tribune is not naming the man behind the “Tuabah” account because he, like the other newly discovered FBI targets, has not been charged with a crime.
Most of the suspects hit the FBI’s radar based on their online activity. In Tuabah’s case, a New York undercover officer shared concerning online comments with the FBI in 2015. According to FBI search warrant affidavits, Tuabah told the officer that he had “connections” in ISIS’ ranks who relayed news from the battlefield. Among them was a “teacher” who “taught him all he knows” before he left Minnesota, according to the officer’s account of a phone conversation.
His friends could be among the at least eight Minnesotans now thought to have joined ISIS abroad — seven have been disclosed by law enforcement in recent years, and the Star Tribune reported this year that a St. Louis Park college student allegedly abandoned his family while visiting relatives in Morocco in 2015.
Records show that federal magistrate judges in Minnesota approved at least two searches of Tuabah’s social media accounts throughout 2015. In private messages, according to the records, Tuabah told one woman that he wanted a wife who “supports isis with me till we die.” He also asked a man about the cost of airfare from Egypt to Turkey “for a friend.”
It’s unclear if the FBI contacted Tuabah. Reached by phone, the man simply replied, “No comment” and hung up.
In other cases, digital trails threatened to go cold.
Late last year, the FBI identified a suspected ISIS militant from overseas called “Mu’assad Sharq Afriqiya” who used Facebook to contact possible recruits. One alleged target was a 35-year-old Minnesota father of four who, until March, worked at a local community health center. The FBI also suspected that the Minnesotan used up to 15 Twitter accounts and freely posted his own pro-ISIS imagery on Facebook.
According to an FBI agent, the Minnesotan expressed an affinity for both Al-Shabab’s media wing and the ISIS magazine Dabiq. Afriqiya, in the first of 48 Facebook messages captured by the FBI, introduced himself as a fellow Somali and inquired about the man’s skills with editing photos and videos and translating English. He replied that he was “very good” at translating as “that’s my job.”
“Good. So you can help us with translation,” said Afriqiya, allegedly referring to the Dabiq magazine.
“Leave everything English to me,” the Minnesotan replied.
In a petition last year to keep the documents sealed, prosecutors disclosed that an undercover agent had connected with the Minnesotan online and described the investigation as ongoing. Records show the FBI received a PDF file with the results of the search warrant for the account in January. But an FBI agent wrote that the Facebook exchange ended with Afriqiya and the Minnesota father planning to continue their conversation on an “encrypted mobile messaging” app.
‘Plan … Patience … Attack’
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law, said that ISIS’ territorial losses could curb its ability to attract new foreign recruits and leaves uncertain how many supporters will still be willing to commit violence in its name at home.
“Remember, ISIS’ big thing was to recruit to the caliphate and now they don’t have a caliphate,” Greenberg said. “It may actually make it less powerful in terms of what it can inspire.”
But authorities are still watching those once interested in following ISIS overseas for signs they may heed its calls for bloodshed.
“Historically, not just in the U.S., but globally, there have been cases where individuals who have aspired to travel and fight are prevented from doing that … and they have acted locally instead,” said Craig Lisher, an FBI spokesman. “From the FBI’s perspective, we have to be vigilant in all of these cases and investigate these subjects until they no longer present a threat.”
The most recent local case to be unsealed spawned from tweets by a south metro jujitsu instructor responding to the November 2016 sentencings of nine area men convicted of trying to join ISIS: “It takes 0 discipline and coordination to make a sign and yell slogans,” wrote “Ibrahim,” a Muslim convert who moved to Minnesota from Arkansas in 2010. “That’s why it yields small results. Plan … Patience … Attack.”
FBI agents looked for evidence that Ibrahim threatened Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, after a subsequent tweet referenced the judge’s history overseeing terrorism cases.
On Facebook, agents meanwhile found references to clerics popular with the global jihadist movement and posts wishing death on a person who reported another user to the FBI: “May she choke to death on the filth that spews from her mouth.”
The FBI said Ibrahim also maintained an online kinship with Marlonn Hicks, a Chicago-area man who pleaded guilty last year to explosives charges. Authorities say Hicks expressed interest in joining ISIS in 2016 but also mused about coordinating attacks across the U.S. But first, authorities say, he sought guidance from Facebook friends like Ibrahim: “My question is aren’t suicide belts and vests a sure ticket to hell??”
Ibrahim allegedly told him that “they are permissible in certain circumstances” and sent YouTube links of lectures justifying suicide attacks. Hicks replied: “Wow.”
In a brief phone interview with the Star Tribune, Ibrahim said he has not been contacted by authorities but learned of the FBI probe from acquaintances who were interviewed by agents. The experience caused him to “watch my mouth what I say more online,” said Ibrahim, who said he converted to Islam while in prison on weapons charges in 2003.
“But it’s kind of weird as a Muslim when I see that a Nazi person can say whatever they want on the internet and it’s … freedom of speech,” he said.
Ibrahim denied that he would ever encourage anyone to “do something outrageous to any American citizen,” citing his own citizenship and relatives here.
“If there’s a terrorist and I think someone is going to hurt people, I can do something,” he said. “I’m a trained martial artist. I’ll try to stop them.”