Terrence McNeil, a 24 year-old man from Akron, Ohio, pleaded guilty to terror-related charges yesterday after authorities alleged that he posted an Islamic State hit list online. Prosecutors did not charge McNeil with plotting to commit an attack himself. Instead, he pleaded guilty to soliciting the murder of American military personnel.
The key allegation against McNeil stemmed from his decision in Sept. 2015 to re-post a file that was created by the “Islamic State Hacking Division” earlier that same year. The file, which McNeil re-published on a Tumblr page, purportedly offered the addresses of 100 American servicemen and encouraged followers of the so-called caliphate to target them. It was titled, “Target: United States Military.” The next line read: “Leak: Addresses of 100 US Military Personnel.”
“The Islamic State Hacking Division (ISHD) has hacked several military servers, databases and emails and with all this access we have successfully obtained personal information related to military personnel in the United States Air Force, NAVY & Army,” the main body of the message read. “With the huge amount of data we have from various different servers and databases, we have decided to leak 100 addresses so that our brothers residing in America can deal with you.”
The authors went on to encourage individuals to hunt down the individuals identified in the data.
“O Brothers in America, know that the jihad against the crusaders is not limited to the lands of the Khilafah, it is a world-wide [sic] jihad and their war is not just a war against the Islamic State, it is a war against Islam,” the message continued.
The ISHD argued that attacks inside the US were justifiable because of the violence overseas. The file read: “These Kuffar [unbelievers] that drop bombs over Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Khurasan and Somalia are from the same lands that you reside in, so when will you take action? Know that it is wajib [necessary] for you to kill these kuffar! and now we have made it easy for you by giving you addresses, all you need to do is take the final step, so what are you waiting for? kill them in their own lands, behead them in their own homes, stab them to death as they walk their streets thinking that they are safe…”
FBI Special Agent Shawn S. Hare described the accompanying ISHD list in the criminal complaint filed in McNeil’s case. The file “loops several dozen photographs that purport to be of United States military personnel, along with their respective name, address, and military branch.” The “final photograph loop contains a picture of a handgun and a knife with text that reads ‘…and kill them wherever you find them…,'” according to Hare.
The hit list was first compiled by Junaid Hussain, who was the ISHD’s ringleader until his death in an American drone strike in Raqqa, Syria on Aug. 24, 2015. Both British and American officials identified Hussain as one of the self-declared caliphate’s “remote-control” plotters, as he contacted numerous willing accomplices online and directly encouraged them to carry out attacks.
In some cases, Hussain even offered his Western recruits specific guidance regarding how they should proceed. For instance, Hussain was in contact with the two jihadists who opened fire at an event dedicated to drawing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed in Garland, Texas on May 3, 2015. He also encouraged a West Chester, Ohio man, Munir Abdulkader, to kill an employee of the US military. Abdulkader pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in Mar. 2016. The FBI has detected Hussain’s hand in various other plots inside the US as well.
The list republished by McNeil was first posted online by Hussain on Mar. 20, 2015. Hussain then conspired with another convicted Islamic State supporter, a citizen of Kosovo named Ardit Ferizi, to disseminate the personally identifiable information (PII) of “approximately 1,300 US military and other government personnel that Ferizi had taken” from a “company and provided to Hussain.” Hussain tweeted out that file on Aug. 11, 2015, less than two weeks before an American drone caught up with him in Raqqa. Ferizi was sentenced to 20 years in prison last September.
Hussain’s wife, Sally Jones, helped him prepare the address databases, according to the US State Department. “Jones and Hussain targeted American military personnel through publication of a ‘hit list’ online to encourage lone offender attacks,” Foggy Bottom said when it announced its terror designation of Jones on Sept. 29, 2015. Jones has also “used social media to recruit women to join” the Islamic State and, in Aug. 2015, “encouraged individuals aspiring to conduct attacks in Britain by offering guidance on how to construct homemade bombs.”
McNeil repeatedly professed his support for the Islamic State on social media
It does not appear that McNeil directly corresponded with Hussain. The heart of the case against him was apparently his reposting of Hussain’s Mar. 2015 “hit list” and subsequent databases as well. US officials argued that McNeil was not simply exercising his First Amendment rights when he posted this potentially sensitive information.
“While we aggressively defend First Amendment rights, the individual arrested went far beyond free speech by reposting names and addresses of 100 US service members, all with the intent to have them killed,” the FBI’s special agent in charge, Stephen D. Anthony, said in a statement released by the Department of Justice. “We will remain vigilant in our efforts to stop those who wish to support these despicable acts.” That same statement says that McNeil “posted multiple other kill lists in late 2015, all of which repeated the same refrain, calling on others to seek out and murder US servicemen and women.”
McNeil didn’t make it hard for authorities to identify him as an Islamic State supporter. He was not a highly-trained terrorist who was well-versed in operational security. He repeatedly announced his desire for violence inside the US for more than a year prior to his Nov. 12, 2015 arrest.
Indeed, according to the complaint filed in his case, McNeil left behind a colorful digital trail — on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter — filled with expressions of his support for the Islamic State and jihadism.
McNeil allegedly posted to a Facebook account under the name “Terrence Joseph Broadway.” On May 11, 2014, he wrote: “I can’t wait for another 9/11, Boston bombing, or Sandy Hook!!!” Two of the three events he listed are, of course, terrorist attacks. But the third was a mass shooting carried out by a deranged young man who had nothing to do with jihadism.
In another Facebook post the following day, McNeil allegedly wrote: “I’m American by birth not choice. Easily I’m african american and native american so this country has made my people suffer years. Casualty of war. I would gladly take part in an attack on this murderous regime and the poeple [sic].” In a follow up, he wrote: “I’ll be proud when I sled [sic] american blood.” Then, on May 14, 2014, another post read: “Somebody should park a car bomb in front of a church, school, or mall.”
McNeil also expressed anti-Israeli sentiment, writing on June 12, 2014: “Death to Israel. Death to America. Free Syria. Free Palestine.” Days later, he reiterated: “Death to Israel!!!”
Based on the citations available in the complaint, McNeil was increasingly drawn to the Islamic State and its ideology over time.
On June 12, 2015, an anonymous user on Tumblr asked McNeil: “If U [sic] support ISIS just admit it coward.” McNeil answered: “lmao I don’t support Egyptian idols if you mean the Islamic State I have stated many times that I do support them.”
McNeil advertised his affinity for the Islamic State on his first Twitter account (“11LoneWolfe”). “I support Dawlah and I live in the US,” he wrote in one tweet on July 25, 2015. “Dawlah” is a reference to Baghdadi’s “state.” He wrote in another tweet on July 27, 2015: “Just thinking about getting martyred puts a smile on my face. One day soon inshallah.”
Days later, on Aug. 3, 2015, law enforcement officials requested the account’s profile information from Twitter. The social media service repeatedly suspended McNeil’s accounts, but as is the case with many jihadist-linked feeds, McNeil simply altered the handle name slightly and quickly began tweeting once again.
In the the eighth iteration of his Twitter account (“LoneWolfe_18”), McNeil used a picture of Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Shishani) as his avatar. Batirashvili, a top Islamic State commander, was subsequently killed in July 2016.
McNeil also celebrated online some of the Islamic State’s most gruesome acts, including the beheading of American James Foley and the immolation of a Jordanian pilot, Muath Al-Kasasbeh. He repeatedly expressed his desire to achieve martyrdom, talked of migrating to the lands of the so-called caliphate and complained about the supposed disbelievers living inside the US, according to the complaint.
On July 16, 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot and killed four Marines and a Navy sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Via Tumblr, McNeil exclaimed: “I just heard the news Allahu Akbar!!!! May Allah (SWT) accept our brother Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez.”
“The Islamic State is still making gains against Assad while the whole world is at war with them,” McNeil allegedly wrote on Tumblr on Aug. 15, 2015. “May Allah protect the mujahideen of Dawlah and grant them many more victories.” A little over two weeks later he wrote: “Before I embraced Islam, I supported the Mujahideen for my hatred of the US. Now I support the Mujahideen for my love of the Muslim ummah [nation or community].”
The DOJ says that under the terms of his plea agreement, McNeil “faces a sentence of between 15 and 20 years in prison.” That is a far different fate from the one Hussain would have wanted for him.