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Feds: Uzbek men tried to fight with Islamic State, offered to bomb Coney Island

The other black flag: Islamic State fighters parade through Raqqa, Syria in 2014.
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Federal agents arrested three Brooklyn men on terrorism charges on Wednesday, accusing two of plotting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State militants, and the third of financing the trip.

Police arrested Abdurasul Juraboev, Akhror Saidakhmetov, and Abror Habibov and charged them with material support for terrorism, based on alleged plans by Juraboev — who prosecutors say professed his willingness to kill President Obama and plant a bomb in Coney Island — and Saidakhmetov to travel to territory controlled by the jihadist militant group. Cops caught up to Saidakhmetov as he prepared to board a Turkey-bound flight at John F. Kennedy Airport, while Juraboev was arrested at home and Habibov in Florida, where he owns businesses, according to prosecutors.

The arrests came more than six months after federal agents say they interviewed Juraboev and he said again that he would assassinate President Obama if Islamic State higher-ups said to. A lawyer for one of the men criticized the government for allowing the alleged terrorist sympathizers to move forward with their supposed attempt to join up with the group, and for employing a paid informant to build a case rather than intervening to dissuade the men.

“This case really makes us question the federal government’s approach to young Muslim men in America,” said Adam Perlmutter, who is representing Juraboev. “They are very ham-fisted tactics. There was no attempt to intervene, to speak, to explore, to understand. There is just the rush to prosecution, to arrest, and to conviction, and I just remind everybody today that the presumption of innocence is still the law of the land in America.”

Juraboev and Saidakhmetov pleaded not guilty to providing material support for terrorism in federal court in Brooklyn on Wednesday afternoon, hours after being arrested. Juraboev, 24, wearing a skullcap and a beard, listened as an interpreter translated the proceedings. Saidakhmetov, 19 and baby-faced with long hair, answered Judge Lois Bloom’s questions himself.

It was not immediately clear how long the men have been in the United States. Saidakhmetov’s mother lives in Brooklyn — prosecutors say she attempted to stop his journey by hiding his passport — and most of Juraboev’s family lives in Uzbekistan. Perlmutter, who only met his client Saidakhmetov on Wednesday, said he has not yet finished high school. The teenager, a citizen of Kazakhstan, had previously worked in kitchenware kiosks owned by Habibov in Georgia, Virginia, and Philadelphia, prosecutors said.

Juraboev most recently worked at a Gyro King franchise in Brooklyn, according to court records.

Investigators say they became aware of Juraboev in August after he made an unnervingly peppy post on an Uzbek-language website about his desire to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and to “strike fear in the hearts of infidels” by assassinating President Obama. When federal agents met with him, they say Juraboev copped to writing the post and told agents that he would gladly assassinate Obama “for Allah” if given the go-ahead, but that he had no plans at that time.

In September, a paid informant made contact with Juraboev and Saidakhmetov, and over the next several months the group hatched a plan to travel to join the jihadist group, corresponding with an Uzbek fighter in Iraq, according to the feds.

The trio later made bumbling attempts to cover their tracks by deleting social media posts, prosecutors said, but for months they allegedly made no secret of their plans to join the militants waging a many-front war, massacring civilians, kidnapping and executing foreigners in highly produced propaganda videos, and recruiting fighters from around the globe. In a telephone conversation with Habibov, an unnamed individual expressed concern about the supposed wannabe terrorists’ lack of discretion, telling the alleged financier that Juraboev “didn’t take any precautions — he just blurted out without hesitation,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Despite these reservations, the alleged plan apparently gained steam in February. With money allegedly provided by Habibov, Saidakhmetov bought a Feb. 25 flight to Istanbul, and Juraboev bought a ticket for March 29, the feds said. Shortly before his Feb. 25 arrest he allegedly spoke with Habibov about flying out sooner.

Neither man would make it to Syria. Agents swooped in on Saidakhmetov on Wednesday as he prepared to board his flight to Turkey, arrested Juraboev at home in Brooklyn, and apprehended Habibov in Florida. Saidakhmetov told his captors that he was headed to Syria and “did not intend to return,” according to prosecutors.

The 23-page criminal complaint lays out the case against the men, relying on recorded conversations among them and with a paid informant, who met the men at an unspecified mosque, according to prosecutors.

Other key allegations from the complaint include:

• Juraboev told agents he believed in the agenda of the Islamic State group, including the establishment of an Islamic caliphate by force in Iraq and Syria, but told agents at the time that he lacked the means to travel there.

• While lacking the discretion to remain tight-lipped with agents, Juraboev was apparently aware that he had landed on their radar, telling a militant in Iraq that he could not fly anywhere but Uzbekistan without facing arrest.

• Saidakhmetov’s mother confiscated his passport and hung up on him when he begged for it back, telling her that it “is a sin to live in the land of the infidels.”

• Responding to calls by Islamic State propagandists for supporters in the West to carry out attacks, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov discussed alternative plans for if they could not make it to Syria, including joining the military in order to pass information along to the group, shooting military personnel, and killing police if they attempted to arrest them en route to Syria.

• Saidakhmetov told the informant: “I will just go and buy a machine gun, AK-47, go out and shoot all the police … It is legal in America … We will go and purchase one handgun, then go and shoot one police officer. Boom … Then we will take his gun, bullets and 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.”

• Despite his willingness to finance the journey, Habibov apparently had reservations about the competency of the two men. In a recorded conversation with an unidentified person, he referred to Saidakhmetov as “little brother” and another person, presumably the informant, as “smart brother.”

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhurowitz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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