Three Brooklyn men who allegedly planned to join the Islamic State were arrested Wednesday by the FBI.
The Department of Justice said in a press release that two of the suspects planned to return to New York and carry out a terror attack if they failed to join up with the Islamic militant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Authorities identified the men, all residents of Brooklyn, as Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, and Abror Habibov, 30. Juraboev and Habivov are citizens of Uzbekistan, and Saidakhmetov is a citizen of Kazakhstan, according to the release.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Pravda said at an arraignment that Juraboev and Saidakhmetov confessed after their arrests of plans to leave the U.S., travel to Syria, and "wage jihad on behalf of ISIS." The two had been under surveillance since August, and appear never to have posed a serious threat.
Saidakhmetov was captured at John F. Kennedy International Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Turkey. Western diplomats have warned that smugglers operating along Turkey's porous 500-mile border with Syria are ferrying oil, weapons, goods and foreign fighters in and out of the war-torn country.
The FBI began its investigation after discovering an online message from one of the men.
"We will vigorously prosecute those who attempt to travel to Syria to wage violent jihad on behalf of ISIL and those who support them," Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement. "Anyone who threatens our citizens and our allies, here or abroad, will face the full force of American justice."
An attorney for one of the men arrested told reporters the U.S. attorney's office had "rushed to prosecution."
Adam Perlmutter, the lawyer for Saidakhmetov, also slammed the government for interrogating his client and Jurobaev "without counsel" present, but did not elaborate.
"My hope," Perlmutter said, is that the public remembers there is a "presumption of innocence." He added that the government's case rested on the testimony of a paid confidential informant, who he characterized as "enormously manipulative."
An affidavit filed in federal court by FBI Special Agent Ryan Singer outlined details of both the men's alleged plans and authorities' investigations -- and provides a portrait of bumbling would-be terrorists who were hopelessly outmatched in their efforts to keep their communications a secret.
The starting point of the investigation was apparently an Uzbek-language jihadi website that included postings that suggested one could achieve martyrdom through killings. One posting traced by authorities to a Brooklyn address read in part: "I am in USA now but we don't have any arms. But is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here? What I'm saying is, to shoot Obama and then get shot ourselves, will it do? That will strike fear in the hearts of the infidels."
When federal agents arrived at the address, they encountered Juraboev, who quickly confessed that he had posted the messages to the site, that he believed in the Islamic State's agenda, and that he would harm President Barack Obama "if he had the opportunity to do so," according to the affidavit.
Juraboev allegedly said "that he would not kill President Obama because of ill will towards him, but rather because of 'Allah.'"
Juraboev identified Saidakhmetov, who worked in mall kiosks owned by Habibov selling kitchenware and repairing mobile phones, as another supporter of the Islamic State.
Neither is well off, according to a U.S. official at the arraignment. Pravda said Jurobaev earned $2,000 a month working at a Gyro King in Brooklyn, and Saidakhmetov earned $1,500 through his mall job.
Juraboev apparently knew he was on the FBI's radar but still allegedly persisted in his plans to join the Islamic State. In September 2014, a paid informant approached Juraboev at a mosque. In conversations with the informant, the complaint alleges, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov implored him to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State.
Far from terror masterminds, however, the complaint paints a picture of three men who apparently struggled in their alleged quest to join the fearsome terror group. Saidakhmetov was delayed in part by his mother, who took his passport to prevent him from traveling abroad.
Saidakhmetov called his mother on Feb. 19 to beg for his passport, telling her that "if a person has a chance to join Islamic State and does not go there, on Judgment Day he will be asked why, and that it is a sin to live in the land of infidels," according to the complaint. His mother hung up on him.
Juraboev and Saidakhmetov also seemed worried that law enforcement officials -- already monitoring their every move with electronic intercepts and a confidential informant -- would trace their online postings.
"If right now I decide to go to the airport and go anywhere, except Uzbekistan, they may arrest me," Juraboev allegedly told the administrator of a pro-Islamic State website in August. "It's because of what I told them about Obama."
In a conversation with the informant, Saidakhmetov also allegedly suggested gunning down police.
"It is legal in America to carry a gun. We will go and purchase one handgun ... then go and shoot one police officer. Boom," Saidakhmetov told the informant in a recorded conversation included in the complaint. "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."
Habibov allegedly offered financial support for the pair to travel to Syria but did not plan to go himself. He was presented before a court in Florida Wednesday morning. Juraboev and Saidakhmetov are scheduled to appear later before Magistrate Judge Lois Bloom at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.
Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani last month put out a call for lone-wolf terror attacks in the West.
New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, whose department was involved in the investigation, told reporters at a joint press conference with the FBI that the arrests underscored his previous warnings about so-called "lone wolf" attackers. In October a man in Queens, Zale Thompson, attacked an NYPD officer with a hatchet.
"This is real," said Bratton. “This is the concern about the lone wolf.”
The arrests ome amid ongoing tension between the NYPD and the city's Muslim communities over police surveillance of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses.
Ibrahim Hooper, the Washington-based national communications director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations, said the group was investigating. "Obviously, we are concerned whenever there is an allegation that anyone in America would be traveling to assist a terror group and we will monitor the case as it develops," he said.
Two of the three suspects, Jurobaev and Saidakhmetov, arrived in a Brooklyn court Wednesday afternoon in jeans and hooded sweatshirts, hands crossed behind their backs. Jurobaev had the help of a translator as a judge asked the pair if they understood the charges against them. They both replied "yes."
Judge Lois Bloom ordered both detained pending trial, and granted them the opportunity to apply for bail in case family members could provide funds.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 11.
This is a developing story and has been updated with information from the arraignment.
Read the full criminal complaint below.
Sebastian Murdock, Jaweed Kaleem, Charlotte Alfred and Steven Hoffer contributed reporting.