Ohio man allegedly inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, Islamic State

The Department of Justice announced yesterday that an Ohio man, Damon M. Joseph (21), has been arrested for allegedly planning to open fire at a synagogue in Toledo. Joseph had picked two synagogues as potential targets and wrote out his plan of attack earlier this month under the pseudonym, “Abdullah Ali Yusuf.”

Damon Joseph, Lucas County Jail.

The FBI first became aware of Joseph in May, when he expressed support for jihadist causes on social media. Several months later, in September, the FBI’s undercover employees began communicating with Joseph about his beliefs and desired plans.

During one such conversation, Joseph allegedly endorsed the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in late October. “I admire what the guy did with the shooting actually,” Joseph told an undercover FBI employee, according to an affidavit filed by Special Agent J. Troy Amundson. Like the Pittsburgh shooter, Joseph expressed his hatred of Jews. He also said he hated the “gays,” “Christians” and “Catholics.”

Joseph added: “I can see myself carrying out this type of operation inshallah.” Joseph clarified that this was something he could potentially do in the future, after his “virtual jihad” mission was complete. The 21-year-old was making videos in support of the Islamic State, and hoped that others would be wooed to its cause by his handiwork.

On Dec. 7, law enforcement officials arranged for Joseph to take possession of two inoperable semi-automatic rifles — weapons that he had requested as part of his plotting. He was then arrested.

The Pittsburgh shooting wasn’t Joseph’s only source of inspiration. Court filings make it clear that he was already enamored with the Islamic State.

In addition, Joseph was a fan of Anwar al-Awlaki, the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cleric who espoused individual jihad while also plotting more professional attacks. Like other Islamic State supporters inside the United States, it appears that Joseph mixed Awlaki’s teachings with loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate, which wasn’t declared until nearly three years after Awlaki’s death in Sept. 2011.

In Dec. 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Farook had studied Awlaki’s teachings years beforehand. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla. in June 2015, also reportedly listened to Awlaki’s lectures. Both the San Bernardino shooters and Mateen pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and the Islamic State claimed that they acted on its behalf.

Another example arose in Sept. 2016, when Ahmad Khan Rahami placed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at locations in New York and New Jersey. Rahami referenced Awlaki, Osama bin Laden and Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani as ideological guides in his notebook.

These are just three examples of how some jihadists have been influenced by Awlaki’s lectures, as well as the calls to violence issued by Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate. It appears that Joseph fell under the sway of both as well.

Joseph allegedly expressed support for Awlaki’s teachings and the Islamic State

According to court filings, Joseph made favorable references to “Sheikh Anwar” on social media. Such postings eventually led the FBI to contact him.

On Sept. 12, according to the FBI affidavit, Joseph told one of the Bureau’s undercover employees that although he had watched a number of videos on YouTube he wished he “could access sheikh awlakis [sic] videos.” The context isn’t entirely clear, but Joseph may have been lamenting the fact that YouTube has removed many of Awlaki’s videos.

A week later, on Sept. 19, Joseph sent this same undercover FBI employee a video celebrating the Islamic State. The clips were compiled by Joseph himself.

The video, 2 minutes and 45 seconds long, “included a number of images of Anwar Al-Awlaki, the ISIS flag, and statements such as ‘Educate yourselves on the teachings of Sheikh Awlaki.'” This mashup wasn’t the last time Joseph fused Awlaki’s work with support for the Islamic State.

On Sept. 20, Joseph sent the FBI undercover employee another video that was nearly five minutes long. Joseph’s production “contained multiple images of the ISIS flag, images and quotes from Anwar Al-Awlaki.” The video included statements that reflected Awlaki’s teachings, such as: “44 ways of jihad, have you contributed? Do your part to help your brothers” and “Whatever country you are in, gather with eachother [sic] and do what you can, Allah will reward you for any 44 ways of jihad you can do.”

“44 Ways to Support Jihad” is one of Awlaki’s most cited works. In it, Awlaki specifically recommended online work -in addition to various other ways to assist the jihadist cause.

Still another video created by Joseph, and sent to the FBI’s undercover employee on Sept. 23, was nearly six minutes long. It, too, fused “numerous” scenes of Islamic State flags and fighters with images of Awlaki. The messaging apparently included Joseph’s own phrasing, with an emphasis “on the themes of hijrah and martyrdom.” Hijrah is a key motif in terrorist propaganda, as organizations now use it to encourage would-be followers to travel abroad to wage jihad.

The next day (Sept. 24), Joseph discussed the documentary “Path of Blood,” which includes footage recorded by al Qaeda’s men during their campaign in Saudi Arabia. “Ya like the whole thing was like al queda [sic] recording their own missions it was awsome [sic] and the real deal,” Joseph told an undercover FBI employee.

Joseph added that he wanted his own videos to inspire new jihadists to serve the Islamic State. “Ya like i want my videos to inspire brothers in the west too […] More twords [sic] dawlah but really anyone on the haqq,” the FBI’s affidavit quotes Joseph as saying. (Dawlah is a reference to the Islamic State.)

In the pages of AQAP’s Inspire magazine and elsewhere, Awlaki advocated striking targets such as Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Inspire specifically identified Charlie Hebdo as a publication that should be struck. Awlaki argued that such terrorist operations are morally righteous, as those who supposedly slander Islam and its Prophet are deserving of death. It’s easy to see how some, perhaps many, could struggle with the idea of killing journalists in cold blood. But Awlaki and other al Qaeda actors cast the actions of cartoonists and other satirists as an affront to all of Islam, thereby making their blood permissible.

In Jan. 2015, two brothers, backed by AQAP, finally carried out the deed that Awlaki had advocated years before.*

Awlaki’s and al Qaeda’s justifications for the Charlie Hebdo massacre apparently sunk in with Joseph. Though Joseph said he “struggled with the idea of killing,” he didn’t view the magazine’s staff as innocent victims. When asked what sort of persons counted as “legitimate targets,” Joseph replied: “People who are openly against islam for one thing, all military obviously, people who disrespect the prophet and Allah. Like the Charlie Hebdo thing i supported that 100%.”

To be sure, Joseph’s case deserves more scrutiny and analysis. The observations above are based on just a few court documents, and these contain unproven allegations. But this limited evidence suggests that Joseph substituted the jihadist ideology he found in the online world for what he heard in the bricks-and-mortar world.

Joseph complained to one of the FBI’s undercover men that the “the masjid [mosque] i usually go to is anti dawlah so i dont like going to it too often especially not for the lectures just go to pray when i can go.”

In the online world, Joseph could find material that was far more friendly to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate project. Anwar al-Awlaki took advantage of the “Information Age” as well.

*It should be noted that a friend of the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly, conducted his own attacks in France around the same time as the Kouachis’ assault on Charlie Hebdo. Although the Kouachis were backed by AQAP, Coulibaly acted in the name of the Islamic State. This is another example of how AQAP’s calls to attack have cross-polinated with the Islamic State’s own instigation.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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2 Comments

  • Curly4 says:

    It is time for this man to meet the 70 virgins promised martyrs with the government’s help.

    • irebukeu says:

      Oh, I agree. Do those virgins have no god to save them from this hell? These virgins get 1/72 (I’m thinking its 72 but now I’m not sure) of some fraction of this losers time? Does anyone ever ask these jihadis how old these iron age presumed ‘virgins’ are, or where they come from? What does the Ulema say about this? I wonder. hmmm.
      This religion needs to reform itself and its high time the source of the 70 or 72 virgins get examined as well what rights they might have

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