U.S. authorities on Wednesday arrested and arraigned two foreign nationals living in New York on charges of plotting to support the Islamic State group in Syria and kill President Barack Obama, police and FBI agents in the United States. A third foreign national was charged separately.
The U.S. Department of Justice said Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, a citizen of Kazakhstan, was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where he was attempting to board a flight to Istanbul. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, of Uzbekistan, had a ticket to travel to Istanbul next month and was arrested in Brooklyn. Abror Habibov, 30, also of Uzbekistan, is accused of helping fund Saidakhmetov's efforts. He was arrested in Florida, where he appeared in a federal court and was appointed a public defender.
Juraboev and Saidakhmetov appeared in a Brooklyn court later Wednesday and were held without bail.
In this courtroom sketch, defendants Akhror Saidakhmetov, third from left, and Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, fourth from right, stand in Federal Court at their arraignment Feb. 25, 2015, in Brooklyn, New York.
All three are charged with attempt and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization. If convicted, each faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.
The Justice Department said Juraboev was set to engage in terrorism in the U.S. if ordered to do so by Islamic State, and Saidakhmetov intended to do the same if he was not able to travel overseas to join Islamic State fighters.
"This is real," New York Police Commissioner William Bratton told a news conference. "This is the concern about the lone wolf inspired to act without ever going to the Mideast, or the concern once they get to the Mideast to acquire fighting skills, capabilities and then attempt to return to the country."
Tracking terror online
U.S. officials said they first became aware of the three men after Juraboev made an August 2014 posting on an Uzbek-language website that promotes Islamic State. The U.S. said Juraboev offered to kill Obama if Islamic State ordered it. The authorities alleged that more recently, Saidakhmetov said he wanted to buy a machine gun and shoot police officers and U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents if thwarted in his attempt to join Islamic State in Syria.
JFK Airport, NY
According to the criminal complaint in the case, Saidakhmetov said, "We will go and purchase one handgun ... then go and shoot one police officer. 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."
The U.S. said Saidakhmetov called his mother last week to ask for his passport. The government said that when she asked him where he was going, he said, "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."
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In one of the online messages, the U.S. said one of the suspects wrote, "I am in USA now but we don't have any arms. 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?"
Attorney Adam Perlmutter, who is representing Saidakhmetov, questioned the government's tactics and said the U.S. needs to find alternate ways to approach Muslims who may be drawn to radicalists.
"There was no attempt to intervene, to speak, to explore, to understand, there is just the rush to prosecution, to arrest and to conviction," Perlmutter told reporters.
Concerns over foreign fighters
Western officials estimate more than 20,000 foreigners have joined militant groups in Iraq and Syria in the last three years, with as many as 4,000 from Western Europe.
This week, British police said three teenage girls from London flew to Turkey to join Islamic State militants. It is believed that they have now crossed into Syria.
The federal prosecutor in New York, Loretta Lynch, nominated by Obama to be the U.S. attorney general, said, “The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies.”
A U.S. law enforcement official said there are Islamic State-related investigations in all 50 U.S. states.
Sam Mullins, counterterrorism professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, said foreign fighters don't necessarily always travel together -- many travel weeks or months apart, or are part of a group at home.
Mullins, who studies the flow of foreign fighters from Europe, North America and Australia to militant groups like the Islamic State, said the planning is almost never done alone.
"When people radicalize, it's very often a group process. When we look at radicalization more generally ... the groups or network are very important," he said.
"The number of people who entirely self-radicalize with no social interaction -- even online -- is very, very rare," said Mullins.
Upset Immigrant Community
There are an estimated 50,000 Uzbeks living in and around Brooklyn. Most of them work in the service industry and the majority are young people who both work and study. Farhod Sulton, the president of Vatandosh Uzbek-American Federation told VOA the community is upset and disappointed with the news of the arrests.
“It is very upsetting that these people, green card holders, who have so many opportunities here and benefit from various programs in the U.S., turn to these America haters that dream about “Islamic State” and want to commit violent acts and promote such things,” Sulton said.
Sulton said that in the Uzbek community there is very little sympathy for extremist groups. At the same time, he worries about the mindset of some young people, who seem interested in radical groups. “The problem is these kids lack religious education or mostly have no knowledge about Islam. Some of them already come here with some radical views, and since this is a society that allows religious freedom, they get to spread their messages."
He said working with youth has become a major priority for the community. He said there are plans to open a new Muslim center, bring an imam from Uzbekistan and involve parents and well-established Uzbek-Americans into the process. "My advice to everyone is very simple: Please, learn. You want to be a good Muslim? Go to the right source and study. Do not follow terrorists. They are not Muslims.”
VOA's Cindy Saine contributed to this report from Capitol Hill. VOA's Victoria Macchi contributed from Washington. VOA Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova contributed information from Brooklyn.