Al Qaeda suspect planned to kill returning US troops in upstate NY
FBI agents working with the agency's Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested a suspected al Qaeda supporter in late May for plotting to kill newly returning American soldiers in the greater Rochester area. The media first reported on the foiled terrorist plot in early June.
The suspect, Mufid A. Elfgeeh, a US citizen who was born in Yemen, had written on his Twitter feed: "al Qaeda said it loud and clear, we are fighting the American invasion and their hegemony over the earth and people." According to Time Warner Cable Buffalo, Elfgeeh used his Twitter micro-blog to promote funds for "jihadists and for weapons in Syria." Elfgeeh "expressed on numerous occasions his interest in killing American servicemen" returning from war zones, according to Rochester law enforcement authorities [see video news conference].
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported extensively on Elfgeeh's arrest, in front-page stories on June 3 and June 7. The first article,"Tweets Helped Lead to Arrests," included a photograph of a bearded and handcuffed Elfgeeh escorted by US marshals.
In an elaborate sting operation, FBI agents arrested Elfgeeh in a Walmart lot as an informant delivered a cache of weapons and ammunition to him. According to an affidavit, the purchased weapons were a "Walther PPK .32-caliber handgun with a functional silencer affixed to the barrel, a Glock 26, 9-millimeter handgun with a functional silencer affixed to the barrel, two boxes of .32-caliber ammunition, and two boxes of 9-millimeter ammunition." The weapons provided to Elfgeeh were non-functional.
The FBI had been monitoring Elfgeeh since 2013, during which time the alleged al Qaeda suspect had inquired about the price of hand grenades. "In early 2013, an individual who has occasionally worked as informant for the FBI 'first reported information about Elfgeeh,"' the Democrat & Chronicle reported. Thus far the FBI has paid the informant $21,700 and secured visas for family members. A second informant played a further role in extracting information about Elfgeeh's views on the Middle East and the US.
Upstate New York media reports noted that Elfgeeh planned to murder US soldiers returning from Afghanistan as well as Shiite Muslims in the Rochester area, but zeroed in on returning US military personnel in March. It is unclear what prompted Elfgeeh to abandon his plan to target the Shiite community.
But it was in March that Elfgeeh mentioned that a French-Algerian man had killed three French military members, referring to Mohamed Merah, a jihadist who had trained with al Qaeda in Pakistan. Merah killed three French paratroopers and four French Jews in Toulouse in 2012, before being killed in a standoff with security forces. [See LWJ report, Another Look at a French 'lone wolf'.]
The Democratic & Chronicle titled its June 7 article on Elfgeeh, "Terror suspect may be 'lone wolf,'" and raised the question whether Elfgeeh was "working on behalf of anti-American factions." While the headline suggested an independent terrorist, the text of the article depicted a suspect with family connections to a downstate extremist milieu.
According to that second article, Elfgeeh's uncle Abad was arrested in Brooklyn in 2003 for suspected participation in a terrorism network. It noted that Abad "was alleged to have funneled millions to his homeland of Yemen." The article further stated: "He even helped a prominent Yemeni cleric, Sheik Mohammed Ali Hassan al Moayad, transfer money; once a spiritual adviser to Osama Bin Laden, the fundamentalist al Moayad was convicted in 2005 of conspiring to support al Qaeda and Hamas."
In 2006, a US district court in Brooklyn sentenced Abad Elfgeeh to 15 years in prison for illegally funneling nearly $22 million overseas, but omitted terrorism charges.
In a recorded conversation with an FBI informant in Rochester, Mufid Elfgeeh's anti-Americanism was evident. He said, "It's like [Americans] go to Afghanistan killing everybody. It's like they went to Yemen now killing everybody. Doesn't make no difference."
Peter Ahearn, the former head of the FBI's western New York regional office who later worked as a senior adviser with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, surmised: "My guess is ... you're dealing with a lone wolf." He added, "They're just as dangerous as somebody getting directions from somebody overseas -- probably more dangerous because they're working on their own."
While Ahearn carefully couched his words, the upcoming court proceedings will likely reveal more evidence about possible connections between Elfgeeh and al Qaeda's network.
Al Qaeda activity in upstate New York has been noted before. In fact, over 10 years ago Ahearn oversaw an investigation into an al Qaeda network in Lackawanna, a small town just outside of Buffalo.
In 2003, six US citizens of Yemeni background ("the Lackawanna Six") were convicted for providing material support to al Qaeda. A seventh member of the al Qaeda cell, Jaber Elbaneh, is a fugitive thought to be in Yemen; US authorities have offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. In March of this year, Lackawanna Six member Sahim Alwan, a witness in the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, told the court that prior to the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden had asked him what his fellow Muslims in the US thought about al Qaeda's suicide operations.
On June 16 the Democrat & Chronicle reported that Elfgeeh's bail hearing has been postponed until July 15. The investigation is continuing.
It may turn out that Elfgeeh, like Mohamed Merah, is not truly "a lone wolf" but instead has links to al Qaeda. In Merah's case, those links were not publicly revealed for over a year following his death.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.