On June 29, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a 25-year-old US citizen and resident of Columbus, Ohio, pleaded guilty to various terror-related charges. The charges focused on Mohamud’s 2014 trip to Syria, where he was trained by and fought for Al Nusrah Front, then al Qaeda’s official branch in the country. Mohamud’s plea came nearly two years ago, in Aug. 2015, but it “was sealed because of an ongoing investigation.”
Al Nusrah “instructed” Mohamud (pictured on the right*) “to return to the US and commit an act of terrorism,” according to a statement of facts produced for his case. Little is publicly known about Nusrah’s instructions, but Mohamud’s case provides additional details concerning the group’s potential threat to the West at the time.
Within months of Mohamud’s return to the US, the Obama administration began targeting al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group” in Syria. The name “Khorasan Group” caused significant confusion within the US. In reality, it was simply an al Qaeda cadre tasked with plotting against the West, among other duties. Some of its leaders were embedded within Al Nusrah’s ranks. It is not clear if the government thinks someone within the unit directed Mohamud, or if other Al Nusrah members told Mohamud to attack inside the US.
Mohamud’s brother, Abdifatah Aden, first joined the jihad in Syria. The statement of facts cites a “private message” Mohamud sent Aden in Sept. 2013. In it, Mohamud praised his brother “for being a soldier,” while “committing” to follow in Aden’s footsteps as “a fellow foreign fighter.”
Within months, the two were planning Mohamud’s own trip to Syria. Mohamud’s travel plans came together during the first four months of 2014. He became a naturalized US citizen on Feb. 18, 2014, applied for a passport one week later, and gathered $1,000 for his brother. Mohamud also obtained a “communication device” for Aden.
Mohamud left for Syria on Apr. 18, 2014. He “purchased a one-way ticket to Athens, Greece via Istanbul, Turkey.” Instead of continuing to his final destination, Mohamud stayed in Istanbul, where he worked with his brother and “multiple facilitators…aligned with” Nusrah to arrange his trip across the border. The money Mohamud gathered in the US for Aden was given to one of these facilitators.
Throughout much of the Syrian war, Turkey provided a permissive environment for jihadist facilitators. Both the Islamic State and Nusrah, which broke off from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise, have utilized middlemen in Turkey to shuttle new recruits and operatives. Mohammed Islambouli, a senior al Qaeda figure who has reportedly led the Khorasan contingent, has lived and openly operated in Istanbul.
Within one week of leaving the US in Apr. 2014, Mohamud was in Syria with his brother.
Nusrah provided Mohamud with “fitness,” weapons and tactical training. He told someone in the US that “his training included how to enter a structure and kill persons inside.” Mohamud also “engaged in a firefight and expressed his desire to die fighting in Syria,” according to the statement of facts.
While still with Nusrah in Syria, Mohamud “sent a video” to a person in the US showing “individuals who were training him.”
Aden died while fighting in Nusrah’s ranks “on or about” June 3, 2014. Days later, on June 8, his brother Mohamud returned to the US with bad intentions.
“Lady Al Qaeda”
The statement of facts provides some clues as to what Mohamud may have been thinking. Even before returning to America, Mohamud conducted some web searches on his phone. He visited “the website for the Federal Bureau of Prisons” and conducted searches using the phrases “fort worth texas prison inmate search,” “aafia Siddiqui” and “fmc carswell.”
Aafia Siddiqui (seen on the right) has been dubbed “Lady Al Qaeda” in the press. She was tried and convicted in the US on charges stemming from her attempt to kill Americans who were questioning her in Afghanistan in July 2008. US authorities also allege that she assisted senior al Qaeda personnel, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In September 2010, she received a prison sentence of 86 years.
Al Qaeda has repeatedly agitated on Siddiqui’s behalf.
In Nov. 2010, for example, Ayman al Zawahiri released a message entitled, “Who Will Avenge the Scientist Aafia Siddiqui?” Zawahiri called on Pakistanis to “take the only available path, that of jihad…which will liberate Aafia Siddiqui.” Abu Yahya al Libi, a senior al Qaeda manager who was subsequently killed in a US drone strike, called on Muslims to avenge Siddiqui in a Dec. 2010 message entitled, “Aafia Siddiqui…Captivity and Oppression, So Where Are the Heroes?” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: ‘Lady al Qaeda’ in propaganda.]
Al Qaeda has produced numerous propaganda statements highlighting Siddiqui’s supposed plight in the years that followed. The group has attempted to tap into deep anti-American sentiment and exploit the conspiracy theories surrounding her case.
Mohamud was apparently interested in taking up Siddiqui’s cause for himself. According to press reports, Siddiqui has been imprisoned at the Federal Medical Center (FMC), Carswell, which is one of the phrases Mohamud searched on — in addition to Siddiqui’s name and other related terms.
After returning to the US, Mohamud “attempted to recruit multiple individuals” for his plan to kidnap and murder American soldiers. He told an unnamed person that “his plan was to lay low and recruit others for his plot,” which involved killing “military officers or other government employees or people in uniform.”
He told another individual that he wanted to do “something big,” such as capturing and executing soldiers in Texas.
In Sept. 2014, Mohamud taught “several” people how to fire a handgun. Two months later, in Nov. 2014, he purchased an airline ticket from Columbus, Ohio to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas, although “this flight was later changed.”
The newly released statement of facts does not identify the Nusrah member(s) who told Mohamud to return to his adopted home country and kill Americans. Nor are the “facilitators” Mohamud communicated with even after departing Syria identified. Such details are crucial for understanding how Mohamud’s plot unfolded.
US targeting al Qaeda members in Syria
In Sept. 2014, the US government began a targeted air campaign against al Qaeda operatives tasked with plotting against the West. This was just a few months after Mohamud left Syria that prior June. A number of al Qaeda veterans, planners and other operatives were killed in the months and years that followed. Did Mohamud meet with or receive instructions from any of them? We do not know.
There is another interesting angle to Mohamud’s story. Publicly, Al Nusrah Front leader Abu Muhammad al Julani said that Ayman al Zawahiri had directed him and his men not to attack the West, because Zawahiri didn’t want such terror plots to taint the group’s large role in the insurgency against Bashar al Assad’s regime.
The “directives that come to us from Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri], may Allah protect him, are that the Al Nusrah Front’s mission in Syria is to topple [Bashar al Assad’s] regime” and its allies, Julani explained during a friendly interview with Al Jazeera in 2015. Concurrent with Assad’s planned downfall, Al Nusrah was ordered to reach “a mutual understanding with other factions to establish a righteous Islamic rule.”
“We have received guidance to not use Syria as a base for attacks against the West or Europe so that the real battle is not confused,” Julani told Al Jazeera. However, he conceded that “maybe” the mother al Qaeda organization is plotting against the West, just “not from Syria.” Julani emphasized that this “directive” came from Zawahiri.
However, after a short stint training with and fighting for Nusrah, Mohamud set his sights on an attack inside the US. Perhaps the plot was not going to be attributed to Nusrah and many details are unknown. But the US military has repeatedly cited the presence of anti-Western operatives in Syria. Some of them openly threatened America on social media, while others were connected to high-profile, anti-Western operations in the past. Nusrah itself celebrated the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings during an infamous video released in mid-2015.
Regardless, Nusrah’s primary mission from the beginning was to embed itself deeply in the anti-Assad insurgency and build more popular support for the jihadists’ cause, ultimately planning to build an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria. A high-profile attack in the West attributed to Nusrah could have made the US and its European allies take the group’s paramilitary forces more seriously, thereby multiplying the threats to its longer-term plans.
In July 2016, less than two years after Mohamud sought to kill American servicemembers, Nusrah was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS). In January, JFS then merged with several other groups to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS). While these moves have generated some controversy within jihadist circles, including al Qaeda, the creation of HTS was intended, in part, to further insulate the jihadist cause from Western threats.
Mohamud, who was born in Somalia, is not the first US citizen to plead guilty to various charges after traveling to Syria for jihad. In Jan. 2016, the DOJ announced that another naturalized US citizen, Amin al Baroudi, pleaded guilty to charges based on his support for Ahrar al Sham, which was allied with Al Nusrah at the time.
But Mohamud’s case is noteworthy because he returned from Syria with the intent to lash out at his fellow Americans.
“Mohamud admitted to traveling overseas, providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, and receiving training from terrorists,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Boente was quoted as saying in the DOJ’s statement. “He also admitted to returning to the United States and planning to conduct an attack on American soil.”
*The photo of Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud was released by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and posted online by the Associated Press and other media outlets.