An Iraqi-born US citizen in Mesquite, Texas, was arrested by the FBI for allegedly lying to agents about whether he had pledged allegiance to the “self-proclaimed” leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A federal judge ruled a day later that he is a “danger to the community” and must remain in jail.
One CNN report suggests this is an example of the government adopting a new and more aggressive stance in the aftermath of an attack on the Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. Agents are taking “possible threats off the streets, instead of waiting longer to monitor and build an investigation against suspects.”
Yet, as in most FBI cases involving alleged terrorism suspects, this again seems like a preemptive prosecution, where an individual has been targeted because of his beliefs, ideology or religious affiliations that raise concerns for the government. It is a law enforcement practice that resembles practices that were relied upon by the FBI during the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO.
There is absolutely no evidence presented in a filed criminal complaint to suggest that Bilal Abood was plotting a terrorist attack. He is not accused of having weapons. The complaint lacks any evidence to suggest he was communicating with anyone in the Islamic State. However, he has been criminalized as if he is a terrorist.
The FBI appears to have started to spy on Abood as early as March 2013.
On March 29 of that year, the FBI claims he attempted to board a flight to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the Free Syrian Army. He was not allowed to travel, and, when FBI agents questioned him, he allegedly told agents he had only planned to visit family in Iraq.
What reasonable suspicion existed to stop Abood? That is not included in the criminal complaint.
On April 29, the FBI did not stop him when he traveled through Mexico and various other countries to get to Turkey.
Abood returned to the US on September 15. The FBI questioned him again. He allegedly admitted he traveled to Syria through Turkey and stated he had gone to Syria to fight with the Free Syrian Army. He stayed in a Free Syrian Army camp. But he denied that he had provided any “financial support” to the al-Nusrah Front or the Islamic State.
The FBI had his computer seized months later. Agents reviewed the contents on July 9, 2014. It allegedly revealed that he had “pledged an oath” to al-Baghdadi and viewed videos of Islamic State “atrocities such as beheadings” on the internet, according to the complaint.
Abood also allegedly used his Twitter account to “tweet and retweet information on al-Baghdadi.”
“I pledge obedience to the Caliphate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Here we renew our pledge to the Caliphate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi come on supporter where is the pledger,” Abood allegedly tweeted on June 19, 2014
FBI agents arrived at his home on April 14, 2015, nearly nine months after a review of his computer was conducted. The agents allegedly asked Abood if he knew it was a crime to lie to an FBI agent. Abood answered yes. Abood was then asked if he had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Abood denied ever pledging allegiance and, since agents have a tweet suggesting he has pledged allegiance, the agents knew they had managed to get Abood to commit a crime.
But what made Abood an FBI target in the first place?
About the time that the FBI was spying on Abood’s movements the CIA was reportedly sending shipments of arms to Syrian rebel groups, like the Free Syrian Army. It seems preposterous for the US government to criminalize someone for showing interest in a foreign militant group backed by the US government.
The complaint indicates there was an informant involved. The informant allegedly reported that Abood was watching “al Qaeda videos on social media, along with videos about the creation of [the Islamic State].” He allegedly wanted to “help build the Islamic State.”
How was Abood planning to do that from a small city in Texas?
There are clear implications for freedom of expression if these statements are going to be enough in this country to criminalize and prosecute someone like they are a terrorist.
Abood’s girlfriend, Barbara Strebeck, has spoken out since the FBI arrested him. She claims the FBI retaliated against him because they requested he become a “spy” for them when he was planning to travel to Syria. He refused to be their informant.
She told a local CBS affiliate that Abood traveled to Syria because he was “curious about what was going on.” She defended him saying she has been with him for five years and he loves her and her kids and grandkids.
Strebeck insists the FBI setup Abood and that the “laptops federal authorities seized were only used to play video games, not to recruit” for the Islamic State.
What Strebeck and the FBI might agree upon is that of the active “cases” the FBI file, Abood was one of the best cases available to get a quick arrest and make it seem like the FBI was being appropriately vigilant in the aftermath of the attempted attack in Garland.
The public has no exact quotes said by Abood during any of the encounters with FBI agents; just a summary included in the criminal complaint.
Although there is still much to be learned about Abood’s case and how he came to be an FBI target, it fits a pattern where Muslim Americans are asked to be government informants and if they refuse they are coerced by being put on the watchlists, like the No Fly List. They become surveillance targets and eventually may even become the target of a sting operation, where they are induced to plan a terrorist attack so the FBI can claim they are keeping Americans safe from terrorism.
Creative Commons Licensed Photo from Flickr by cliff1066