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Lackawanna terror suspect: a dangerous ISIS supporter or loudmouthed crackpot?

Arafat M. Nagi expressed on the Internet his elation when the Islamic State terrorist group beheaded its victims. He bought a machete, night-vision goggles and other combat gear. And he made two trips to the Middle East, allegedly attempting to link up with ISIS leaders.

But he also was a disabled, unemployed 44-year-old man who depended on family for financial support.

Was he a legitimate terrorist threat, intent on joining one of the world’s most feared terrorist organizations? Or merely a loudmouthed crackpot, spouting off but causing no actual harm?

Those are some of the questions that arose Wednesday after anti-terrorism task force arrested the Lackawanna man on felony charges that he attempted “to provide material support and resources … that is, personnel and property” to ISIS.

His attorney, Jeremy D. Schwartz, said Nagi “absolutely denies trying to join” ISIS “or trying to recruit other people to join.”

But U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Nagi caused other people in Lackawanna to fear him when he spouted off his support for ISIS, also known as ISIL, and attempted to join the terrorist organization. Nagi is accused of using a Twitter account to send out tweets celebrating ISIS beheadings, torture and other acts of terror, Hochul said.

On May 18, 2014, according to court papers, Nagi tweeted a photograph of three severed heads, with the words, “God is the Greatest. The three heads, those who dug their graves by their own hands.”

Nine weeks later, Nagi tweeted another photo of six severed heads, with the words “slaughtered by the hands of God’s Soldiers.”

And back in 2002, authorities said, Nagi had cheered and supported the actions of the Lackawanna Six, the six Yemeni-American men who traveled to Afghanistan to train with al-Qaida and meet with Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed thousands of Americans.

“Members of the Lackawanna community” were fearful of Nagi, telling investigators that he “espoused violent jihad and posed a threat to those of us in the United States,” Hochul said.

A source close to the investigation told The Buffalo News: “The FBI had been watching him for some time and arrested him because he was planning to take action today, preparing to leave and go fight.”

A relative of Nagi’s told The News that he believes Nagi, a U.S. citizen, was trying to recruit him to a radical Islam point of view during a discussion about six months ago.

During one “rant,” Nagi told him that he supported the violent actions of ISIS and urged him to also support the group, said the relative, who spoke on the condition that he would not be identified by The News.

“I think he is influenced by things he sees on the Internet and on TV about ISIS,” the relative said of Nagi. “He doesn’t know why the U.S. is dropping bombs on ISIS. ISIS is killing more Muslims than any other religion. … He would constantly put down the U.S.”

The relative said he refused to agree with Nagi’s views.

“I told him, if you criticized the Yemen government like that, you’d get your head blown off. I told him the U.S. is the only place where you could have a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu and people from other religions all living next to each other and getting along.”

He said Nagi responded to that by saying three words: “Don’t trust them.”

Hochul noted that last year, his office charged a Rochester man with trying to recruit people for terrorist organizations.

“Unfortunately, this is another occasion where the worldwide fight against terrorism has returned to Western New York,” he said.

In federal court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi asked a judge not to release Nagi on bail, calling him “a danger to the community” and predicting that he will flee from the area if he gets the opportunity. Nagi is jailed for now, and a detention hearing is scheduled for Friday.

Prosecutors have not charged Nagi with planning any specific act of terrorism in America. FBI Special Agent Steven L. Lanser said authorities monitored Nagi’s activities “for about a year” before arresting him Wednesday. He was not arrested earlier because investigators were not aware of anything he did that would put anyone in imminent danger, Lanser said.

Federal agents believed that Nagi was preparing this week to leave Lackawanna and travel to the Middle East to offer himself to ISIS as a fighter, sources close to the case told The News.

Among the allegations made against Nagi in a 28-page criminal complaint:

• A cooperating witness who was “previously convicted of terrorism offenses” told the FBI last August that Nagi “talks about jihad to various people in the Lackawanna community and that it is common for Nagi to get in verbal altercations over his jihadi beliefs. Jihad, in this context, refers to violent jihad, including fighting of the type occurring in Syria.”

• Nagi traveled to the Middle East for about two months last year, returning last Sept. 19. Government records show that he visited Turkey and Yemen. He also traveled to Turkey for one day in 2012, cutting short a planned three-month trip because of a gallbladder ailment. Federal agents believe the purpose of the trips was to offer himself as a supporter of ISIS.

• Nagi pledged to support and obey ISIS in at least two tweets last year.

• Nagi’s Twitter account had 412 followers, and he was a follower of 278 Twitter accounts, including many that featured “profile pictures” of ISIS flags, photos of bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, photos of recent beheadings and violent terrorism images.

• He repeatedly posted tweets celebrating violent attacks by ISIS, including one in May 2014 showing a person being beheaded. The tweet included the words “Today, this filth has been killed in the state of Hums. He waged a tougher war against Muslims. It is your paradise, rather, slaughter.”

• Last December, a cooperating witness told the FBI that Nagi had visited him the previous month and espoused radical political and religious views. “Nagi expressed agreement with” ISIS tactics that included “killing of innocent men, women and children, believing that they were justified because the victims were not Muslims.” The witness told the FBI that Nagi had taken an “oath” to support ISIS and that he may be “compelled” to act in support of the terrorist group, including taking action in the United States.

• In February of this year, Nagi said he supported ISIS for burning a captured Jordanian pilot to death, because the pilot was part of a military force that burns and kills Muslims by dropping bombs on them. The witness quoted Nagi as stating, “do to them what they do to you.”

• Last year, Nagi used the eBay online shopping site to purchase numerous items of battle gear, including “tactical vests” with armor, combat boots, camouflage combat pants, hard-knuckled tactical gloves, a “military-style” knife and machete, and flags and headbands supporting terror groups.

Hochul said he could not comment when asked by a News reporter how Nagi allegedly planned to travel overseas with such items.

It is challenging to decide when to move in and arrest a person who has committed no overt acts of terrorism but has been trying for a long time to link up with a terrorist organization, said Lanser, who heads terrorism investigations in the FBI’s Buffalo office.

“It is tricky for the government,” said John J. Molloy, a defense attorney who represented one of the Lackawanna men who took a guilty plea in the Lackawanna Six case. “Maybe it is just talk and rhetoric. But if the guy is serious, with all the easy access to weapons we have in this country, there is a legitimate concern for law enforcement. We seem to have mass shootings almost every day. It’s scary.”

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