WASHINGTON – Two men were arrested Wednesday in New York as they allegedly prepared to join Islamic State militants in Syria, while a third man was arrested in Florida for allegedly helping fund their efforts, after they boasted of their plans on the Internet.
The three, all immigrants from Central Asia who live in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, allegedly plotted to launch attacks in the United States if they were prevented from joining the extremist group, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.
One of the men repeatedly offered to assassinate President Obama if ordered to do so by the Islamic State group, according to the complaint.
Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, a citizen of Kazakhstan, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Istanbul, Turkey, and then travel to Syria, the FBI said.
In conversations secretly recorded by the FBI, Saidakhmetov allegedly said he might try to force the flight to divert “so that the Islamic State would gain a plane.”
He also allegedly said that if he failed to reach Syria, he was prepared to join the military to kill U.S. soldiers, plant a bomb on Coney Island, the famed beachfront entertainment area in Brooklyn, or shoot FBI agents and New York police.
“We will go and purchase one handgun … then go and shoot one police officer,” he said in one wiretapped call, according to the complaint.
“Boom. … Then, we will take his gun, bullets and a bulletproof vest … then, we will do the same with a couple of others. Then we will go to the FBI headquarters, kill the FBI people.”
Also arrested was Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, a citizen of Uzbekistan. Authorities said he had purchased a ticket to Istanbul and planned to follow Saidakhmetov to Syria next month.
The third suspect, Abror Habibov, 30, an Uzbeki citizen, allegedly gave the two money to help them fly to Turkey to join the Islamic State group. Habibov, who owns a chain of kiosks in retail malls in several states, was arrested in Jacksonville, Fla.
About 20,000 foreign fighters have joined Islamic State and other Sunni militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including several thousand Europeans and about 100 Americans, according to U.S. estimates. About a dozen Americans are believed to be fighting on behalf of the Islamic State.
According to the complaint, U.S. investigators first began tracking the men last August after Juraboev allegedly posted a note on a now-closed Uzbek-language website that sought recruits for Islamic State, offering to shoot Obama if the extremist group ordered him to do so.
“That will strike fear in the hearts of infidels,” the note states. Juraboev repeated his pledge to “execute Obama” in an email later that month to another Islamic State website, according to the complaint.
Special FBI Agent Ryan Singer wrote in the criminal complaint that agents first interviewed Juraboev in August and he openly discussed plans not only to join the Islamic State but to kill Obama.
The investigation spread to Saidakhmetov, and wiretaps were approved to pick up the two men’s conversations. The FBI also placed a paid confidential informant inside the group, who met and befriended Juraboev at a local mosque.
At one point Saidakhmetov offered to join the U.S. military so he could pass information to Islamic State “to help in their attacks,” according to the complaint. Barring that, he said, he “could always open fire on American soldiers and kill as many of them as possible.”
According to the criminal complaint, Saidakhmetov was overjoyed when his travel documents were cleared by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week. He opened the package and said “his soul was already on its way to paradise and made the sound of a horn.”
The three were each charged with attempt to provide and conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State group. If convicted, they each face up to 15 years in prison.
All three made initial appearances in court, but did not yet enter pleas in the case.
Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and Obama’s nominee to replace Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general, is overseeing the case. A Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on her nomination.
Lynch said the case shows the U.S. efforts to stop people from joining Islamic State, as well as to stop people influenced by the group from using violence in this country.
“The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies,” Lynch said in a statement. “Anyone who threatens our citizens and our allies, here or abroad, will face the full force of American justice.”