A Minnesota man’s curiosity about ISIL put him in touch with two British nationals-turned-terror recruiters who used social media to inspire attacks in the West.
Abdul Raheem Ali-Skelton, 23, of Glencoe, Minn., communicated online in 2014 and 2015 with Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, his attorney said in a court filing Friday. Ali-Skelton resisted the solicitations of the two recruiters but “panicked” when confronted by the FBI and lied about the extent of his contacts, the attorney said.
He has been in jail since his March arrest on a separate charge: threatening to blow up a Twin Cities Walgreens after a domestic dispute.
Ali-Skelton pleaded guilty in April to making false statements to the FBI. Robert Richman, his attorney, will ask Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank on Jan. 10 to sentence his client to time already served because he said he did not commit an act of terrorism or try to cover one up.
“Abdul Ali-Skelton is not a terrorist,” his filing said.
Although Ali-Skelton lied to agents in July 2015 about staying in touch with Khan and Hussain online, Richman said he “concocted a fanciful idea that if he could discover a terrorist attack these men were planning, he could provide that information to the FBI and be a hero. The plan failed.”
Ali-Skelton was born William Sebastian Skelton in Iowa and changed his name after he converted to Islam at age 17, Richman said. He still drank alcohol, did drugs and was devoted to performing rap music, Richman said.
The birth of a daughter coincided with Ali-Skelton’s desire to do something about the brutality of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. He discovered online videos of ISIL promoting a “peaceful, utopian society,” but other propaganda videos that displayed mass executions “repulsed” him, Richman said.
The dueling messages led him to online debates with people like Khan and Hussain — who Ali-Skelton first didn’t take to be ISIL recruiters. He later disengaged from social media after being urged to carry out an attack in the United States. Richman said he later reconnected because “his curiosity got the better of him.”
The two recruiters were reportedly killed in drone strikes in August 2015.
The FBI initiated the first of several interviews with Ali-Skelton in June 2015. Ali-Skelton came clean after being called to testify before a federal grand jury.
He was not taken into custody until his March 27 arrest in Brooklyn Park. According to Richman, Ali-Skelton performed at a rap venue that night and blacked out after using drugs and alcohol. At the Walgreens, Ali-Skelton encountered his estranged wife and another man, threatened the man and said he would blow up the store.
He pleaded guilty to a state charge of terroristic threats.
A psychologist determined Ali-Skelton suffers from personality and alcohol abuse disorders and is not a “hard-core radicalized Islamic terrorist.”
Daniel Koehler, a German terrorism scholar contracted by the court, also assessed Ali-Skelton as having a low to medium risk of reoffending. But Richman railed against Koehler’s other findings, including a reference to Ali-Skelton’s participation in Black Lives Matter demonstrations outside the Fourth Precinct after the November 2015 Jamar Clark shooting.
“The thousands of good citizens all over the country who have exercised their First Amendment rights to peacefully protest the shooting of unarmed African-American men would be surprised indeed to learn that by making their voices heard, they are reflecting a ‘Salafi-Jihadi’ identity,” Richman said.
Hussain and Khan were among about 12 English speakers using the web to encourage attacks, according to Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the George Washington University Program on Extremism.
Hughes said Ali-Skelton’s contact with supporters online was more representative of ISIL recruitment cases in the United States than the recent case of Twin Cities friends who either traveled overseas or were caught plotting to leave. It also would have been easier for Ali-Skelton to reach someone like Hussain in 2014 and 2015 than today, Hughes said, with drone strikes taking out recruiters and those still alive preferring more secretive avenues than Twitter.
“They’re less trusting,” Hughes said. “ … You have to go through several more steps.”