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Lackawanna man pleads guilty to trying to join ISIS

To hear investigators talk, the case against Arafat M. Nagi began more than three years ago, fueled by a tip from a community member upset about Nagi's vocal support for violent jihad.

Over time, it became clear the Lackawanna man had gone so far as to publicly pledge his allegiance to ISIS and on two separate occasions travel to Turkey in hopes of joining the terrorist group.

On the eve of his trial in Buffalo federal court, Nagi on Monday admitted trying to join ISIS. He faces a recommended sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Investigated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, Nagi was arrested in 2015 and charged with attempting to provide material support – in this case, himself – to a foreign terrorist organization.

"He told his family he hoped to enter Syria and die a warrior's death," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch said Monday.

Nagi, now 47, admitted making contact with an individual associated with ISIS and expressing support for terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in statements and photos on social media.

In one of his tweets, according to the FBI, Nagi posted a photo of three severed heads with this message in Arabic: "God is the Greatest. The three severed heads, those who dug their graves by their own hand."

As part of his plea deal, Nagi acknowledged traveling from Lackawanna to Turkey in October 2012 and again in July 2014 with the intention of making his way to Syria and eventually joining forces with ISIS.

The FBI said the 2014 trip followed a revealing text from Nagi to a family member. "In the message, the defendant makes reference to possibly never seeing his family again," prosecutors said in court papers.

Investigators said the trips also followed Nagi's purchase of military combat equipment, including body armor, night vision goggles, a machete, a hunting knife and a tactical vest.

"During a search of the defendant's home, a photo was found of the defendant in combat gear, holding an Ak-47 and standing in front of the (ISIS) flag," Lynch said.

At the time of his arrest, Lynch said there was no question that Nagi's goal was to fight for ISIS.

Defense lawyer Jeremy D. Schwartz countered by arguing that his client's actions and statements were evidence of his religious and political beliefs, nothing more.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara asked Nagi why he did what he did.

"It's something he's thought a lot about," Schwartz said on Nagi's behalf, "and he's eager to talk about it at sentencing."

U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. noted that Nagi is not the first local resident to be convicted of terrorism charges and suggested that his motivation was rooted in anti-American sentiment.

"He was adamant about the killing of rebels in Yemen and blamed the United States," Kennedy told reporters.

After Monday's court appearance, Schwartz declined to comment on Nagi's motive but indicated he pleaded guilty in order to avoid the jury selection scheduled to begin Tuesday.

"Mr. Nagi did not want to put his family through the stress of a trial," he said.

From the day of Nagi's arrest, investigators have credited a Lackawanna community member who alerted the FBI to his actions and statements in support of ISIS.

That same community member, during follow-up interviews in December 2014 and March 2015, reported that Nagi still espoused radical political and religious views.

Philip E. Frigm Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo, said Nagi's conviction is evidence of the need to attack ISIS on two different fronts.

"As important as catching those who would commit violence against our country," Frigm said, "it is vital to cut off the money and counter their recruiting effort which is the lifeblood of these organizations."

Nagi will be sentenced on May 7.

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