ROCHESTER – To the people who knew him from his restaurant, MoJoe’s Famous Pizza and Chicken, Mufid Elfgeeh was a small-business owner struggling to make ends meet.
What they didn’t know is that the U.S. citizen from Yemen was also a recruiter for ISIS.
Elfgeeh, 31, became the newest face in the government’s war on the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, when he admitted Thursday to trying to recruit three people, two of them FBI informants, to join and fight with the group overseas.
Elfgeeh’s conviction on two charges of trying to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization makes him one of the first Americans convicted of recruiting ISIS sympathizers.
“One of the first (ISIS) recruiters ever captured in this country stands convicted of terrorism-related charges,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said in a statement Thursday.
Charged in September of last year, Elfgeeh could have faced up to 30 years in prison. Federal prosecutors have agreed to ask for a maximum of 22½ years behind bars when he is sentenced in March.
During Elfgeeh’s court appearance Thursday, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford outlined, one by one, the numerous admissions in the plea deal and, at times, stopped to ask him if they were true.
Those admissions include the acknowledgment that, from December of 2013 until his arrest in May of last year, Elfgeeh used money and other resources to recruit two individuals and then assist them in making contact with an ISIS supporter in Yemen.
“You recruited these people to travel to Syria to join and fight with ISIS. Is that correct, Mr. Elfgeeh?” Wolford asked the defendant.
“Yes, Your Honor,” Elfgeeh answered.
As part of his guilty plea, Elfgeeh also admitted contacting a Chechen national in Turkey, a Jordanian national in Syria and two Yemeni nationals in Yemen in search of an ISIS member who could help his recruits make their way to Syria.
He eventually settled on one of the Yemeni nationals and, in a message to him, said he had “two brothers willing and able to join and fight with ISIS. He also asked his contact in Yemen to recommend his recruits for enrollment in the terrorist organization.
“You vouched for the trustworthiness of these individuals. Is that right, Mr. Elfgeeh,” the judge asked at one point.
“Yes, Your Honor,” he said.
Elfgeeh also admitted recruiting a third individual, this one a Yemeni male in Yemen. He said the man needed money to finance his trip to Syria so Elfgeeh sent him $1,500 to help with his travel visa and other expenses. He later learned that the man was unable to get a visa.
A heavy user of social media, Elfgeeh came to the attention of the FBI in part because of his presence on Twitter and Facebook. In his plea deal, he acknowledges opening three Twitter accounts and 23 Facebook accounts, many of them under different names.
“You used these to declare your support for violent jihad,” Wolford said. “Is that right, Mr. Elfgeeh?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” he said.
Noticeably absent from the plea deal is any mention of the allegation that Elfgeeh also planned to kill former and current members of the U.S. military. In previous court papers, the FBI documented a conversation that Elfgeeh allegedly had with a confidential source in which he talks about his plans to purchase a handgun and silencer and target U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq.
“We gonna try to do as much as we could before we could get captured,” he allegedly told the source.
Elfgeeh, according to the papers, went on to suggest that 15 or 20 soldiers could be targeted and that a video claiming credit for the killings should be made public afterward.
Elfgeeh’s plea deal makes no mention of returning U.S. soldiers, but it does include Elfgeeh’s admission that he paid $1,050 for two handguns and silencers. He was arrested by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force immediately after taking possession of the guns.
“Mufid Elfgeeh failed because law enforcement used its best weapon – unity,” Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo, said in a statement Thursday. “Our success in this case is directly linked to the notion that we are stronger and more formidable working in concert with our community than standing alone.”
Elfgeeh’s conviction, believed to be one of the first in the country involving the domestic recruitment of ISIS sympathizers, also prompted a response from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“(ISIS’s) horrific violence is waged against men, women and children, as well as against Muslims and non-Muslims alike” said John P. Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security. “The National Security Division will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute anyone who seeks to provide material support to the designated foreign terrorist organization.”
Elfgeeh, who acknowledged in court that he is on medication for anxiety, isn’t the only Western New York resident charged with supporting ISIS.
Arafat M. Nagi, of Lackawanna, was arrested in July after an FBI investigation concluded that he was preparing to leave for Turkey and eventually travel to Syria to serve with the group.
The FBI also says Nagi posted pro-ISIS photos on social media and has indicated support for its acts of violence.
Nagi was born in the United States to immigrant parents from Yemen.