An 18-year-old was handing over his ticket at an Indianapolis bus terminal, about to board a New York-bound Greyhound, when he got an unwelcome surprise, court records said.
FBI agents had trailed Akram Musleh to the terminal on June 21, 2016, and they arrested him mere moments before he got onto the bus. From New York, Musleh, a U.S. citizen and resident of Brownsburg, Indiana, had planned to fly to Morocco — and then on to ISIS territory where he hoped to join the group, according to an FBI criminal complaint.
Nearly two years later, Musleh pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of attempting to provide “material support or resources” to a foreign terrorist organization. He had originally pleaded not guilty, court records said. Musleh now faces up to 20 years in prison, supervised release for life and a $250,000 fine, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Indiana, which brought the charges.
What kind of “material support” was Musleh planning to provide ISIS? Personnel, according to federal prosecutors — in other words, he was planning to provide himself.
The FBI said Musleh was caught posting posting propaganda online (not to mention taking pictures of himself in front of the group’s flag) and browsing Walmart for pressure cookers, which are used in making improvised explosive devices. Musleh also had purchased multiple one-way tickets to Iraq, Turkey and Morocco to join ISIS, the FBI said.
But as far back as 2013, the FBI had met with staff at Musleh’s school after he posted three videos on YouTube of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader, the FBI said. The FBI, working with the school, then “took steps to dissuade Musleh” from engaging in radical extremism, according to the complaint.
Nine months later, though, Musleh bought an ISIS flag online in 2014, the FBI said. He would later take a photo of himself in front of the flag, court records show. And in April 2015, Brownsburg police responded to a park in the city where Musleh and another individual were asking juveniles if they wanted to join ISIS, according to the FBI.
Musleh booked five flights to Turkey or Iraq that he never completed, according to the FBI. The first came in April 2015, when he planned a one-way flight from Chicago to Erbil, Iraq. Another came a month later, when Musleh tried to buy a ticket from Chicago to Istanbul, but had the credit card declined, the FBI said. And the very next month, in June, Musleh booked three separate one-way flights to Turkey, which the FBI notes is “a common transit point to obtain entry into Syria.”
On June 23, 2016, Musleh had gone to a Chicago airport for a flight to Rome — where he had a layover before going on to Istanbul — but U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents stopped him, the FBI said. Musleh offered varying stories to explain his travels: He first said he was visiting family and friends, according to the FBI. Later he said he was meeting his fiance and her family in Turkey. (According to the FBI, his alleged fiance was an ISIS sympathizer living in Sweden.)
Customs agents wouldn’t let Musleh get on the June Rome-bound flight, telling him his passport would expire on August 25, 2015 — and that Turkey requires at least six months of passport validity from foreign visitors, according to the criminal complaint. Searching his checked luggage, the FBI discovered journals quoting terrorist leaders, including Osama Bin Laden.
In May 2016, Musleh shopped online for pressure cookers, according to the FBI, and conducted “extensive” internet searches about building explosives, according to the FBI. Just days earlier, he accessed a 2006 news article entitled “Indiana tops list for terror targets,” which covered the federal government’s list of more than 8,000 possible targets in the state, the complaint said.
That same month an FBI agent followed Musleh as he entered a Brownsburg Walmart, where he was apparently browsing pressure cookers, according to court records. He left without buying anything. Later he expressed interest in traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS in online communications — including to a confidential FBI source — but also said he was worried about the prospect of carrying out an attack in the U.S., the FBI said.