For at least three years, the FBI has kept tabs on a Fridley man suspected of helping produce ISIS propaganda while longing to join militants abroad.
Agents raided his home last summer. They’ve scoured nearly two dozen social media accounts he allegedly operated. Now, the 37-year-old father of four is enmeshed in a new court challenge of his own making: He wants to carry a gun, but his county’s sheriff won’t let him.
The highly unusual case, which has drawn the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI, seeks to test the limits of how much discretion officials have in denying permits to carry firearms to residents without criminal convictions.
Court papers paint a picture of a man whose voluminous web entries justified terror attacks and the beheadings of journalists. He allegedly vowed to translate for a pro-ISIS publication and offered to help a New Jersey man travel to Syria. And he aspired to make the same journey himself, according to the FBI, before family obligations apparently got in the way.
Yet after years of FBI suspicion, the man has only a long list of traffic violations to his name. That didn’t stop federal authorities from raising red flags when he applied for a permit to carry a pistol a year ago — just before agents stormed his home.
The Star Tribune is not naming the man, who declined to comment for this article, because he has not been charged with a crime. But in a petition filed this spring in Anoka County District Court, he claimed that Sheriff James Stuart’s denial was “discrimination based on his race, national origin and religion.” His attorney is meanwhile arguing that suspicion alone should not be enough to curb his client’s Second Amendment rights.
“It is not appropriate for the FBI to dictate to sheriffs, state courts or other agencies what rights people should have, regardless of whether there is evidence to charge them with a crime,” said Jordan Kushner, the man’s attorney.
A different life online
A former social worker at a Minneapolis community health clinic, the Fridley man allegedly lived a starkly different life online.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on his case, but agents have collected records of the man’s Twitter and Facebook activity since at least May 2015, according to court papers. The social media platforms regularly suspended his accounts over pro-ISIS and Al-Shabab postings, the FBI said, but he often reemerged with slightly modified versions of his online handle, “Abu Kauthar As-Sumaali.”
The Star Tribune has previously reported on two federal search warrants that became unsealed, which included an alleged exchange with an ISIS militant who enlisted As-Sumaali to help translate for a propaganda media wing. A third, newly unsealed warrant from August 2017 disclosed that a 57-year-old New Jersey man told agents that As-Sumaali offered to provide money and airline tickets for a 2015 journey to Syria.
About a month after filing that warrant, agents raided the man’s apartment in Fridley. According to his Anoka County challenge, he had applied for his permit to carry a pistol around the same time. Before the raid, the man corresponded with officials from the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office over the status of his application and was denied because the office found “a substantial likelihood” that he would pose a danger to himself or the public if allowed to carry a pistol.
The Sheriff’s Office explained, after the man appealed, that federal authorities flagged him as “a subject of interest” for possible federal crimes. Kushner, his attorney, is challenging whether the Sheriff’s Office provided enough evidence that his client is too dangerous to be allowed to carry a firearm.
Denials for permits to carry are rare in Minnesota. Sheriff’s offices refused barely 1 percent of the 58,219 applications received in the state last year — a rate that has held constant in recent years, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).
Bryan Strawser, executive director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said criteria like age and training requirements and certain criminal convictions create hurdles that may stop prevented persons from applying at all. The “danger to self or public” reason given to deny the Fridley man’s application is one of few provisions not triggered by a prior court action, allowing sheriffs “a moderate amount of discretion” to deny, Strawser said.
“We certainly want the sheriff to deny if that is indeed a factor,” Strawser said.
Stuart said his office was unable to comment on the matter “because of potential pending litigation.” Assistant Anoka County Attorney Bryan Lindberg, representing the sheriff in the suit, said he could not provide any information because firearm permit data is private.
‘Uncle Sam is everywhere’
In the Anoka County case, federal authorities provided letters raising red flags about possible terrorism support and, in a rare move, an FBI agent testified during a closed court hearing in May. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Bildtsen, in a letter to the judge, meanwhile characterized the man’s case as a “pending federal criminal investigation.”
Prosecutors are sitting on a trove of online correspondence from As-Sumaali that include the alleged offer to help a New Jersey man — who has since cooperated with the FBI — go to Syria. They also document a series of chats with an undercover FBI investigator who posed as a fellow ISIS supporter.
He allegedly told the undercover investigator that he came to the U.S. from Somalia at 18. Though he is a citizen, he told the undercover agent, he was unhappy here and wanted to leave for Syria and Iraq “so bad.” But he cautioned against talking too much about foreign travel online because “Uncle Sam is everywhere.”
According to court filings, As-Sumaali told the investigator that his wife refused to move with him to Raqqa, Syria — then the capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” — because “she loves life too much.” When the undercover agent later suggested focusing on family over jihad, an FBI agent wrote, As-Sumaali replied that his religion was more important than his kids. But, in a footnote to the FBI’s search warrant affidavit, an agent wrote that As-Sumaali told the undercover agent in March 2016 that he didn’t plan to travel at that time, “citing family reasons.”
The federal probe has transpired at the same time that ISIS, amid territorial losses overseas, has shifted toward encouraging supporters to carry out attacks at home.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has said that the bureau is working at least 3,000 active terrorism cases nationwide, and officials say agents now must assess the thinking of those who didn’t make it overseas but still may harbor sympathies for terror groups.
“The big fear that many who were stopped from traveling might launch attacks locally hasn’t really borne fruit,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who studies Western foreign fighters. “They tend to be watched very closely and face severe limitations on their activities. Some get bored and move on. For others, attacking home was never the goal.”
Apparently unable to leave Minnesota — and his family — behind, the Fridley man will continue his court battle over his denied permit to carry application this month as both sides plan to file briefs over the sufficiency of the sheriff’s explanation. Though records of the case have been publicly viewable, a final determination on his permit will likely be private under state law.
Kushner said Minnesota’s law allowing sheriffs to deny by citing “a substantial likelihood” of harm is too vague. But for some gun rights proponents, the process has so far allowed sheriffs to exercise judgment while letting citizens appeal with a chance to recoup court costs if they win a reversal.
“I would say this is an example of the system working,” Strawser said.