The FBI has arrested a Minneapolis college student after keeping him under tight surveillance for weeks, worried he might try to join one of the world’s most brutal terrorist groups in Syria.
Court documents filed in the case offer a rare glimpse into exactly how the FBI has been tracking such radicalized Americans, who are increasingly being recruited to join the Islamic State – or ISIS – the Iraq-based group that has been wreaking havoc in the region.
But the case also highlights how difficult it has been to stop those who’ve been radicalized from actually making it overseas – no sooner had the FBI learned another Minnesota man was also looking to join ISIS than they learned he had already slipped out of the United States that morning.
In Minnesota, 18-year-old Abdullah Yusuf of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., was arrested today for his alleged plan to travel to Syria. The FBI was tipped off to him seven months ago, when he went to a passport office in Minneapolis to obtain a passport for what he claimed was a vacation to Istanbul, Turkey.
Yusuf allegedly became so nervous when asked about his trip that the passport office alerted the FBI, according to charging documents filed in the case. Almost immediately, he was put under FBI surveillance, the documents indicate.
Over the next month, FBI agents watched as Yusuf opened a checking account at a bank, deposited $1,500 into the account, and then used that money to buy a plane ticket to Turkey, court documents allege. FBI agents were allegedly also watching on May 28 when – after his father dropped him off at school – Yusuf snuck into a Volkswagen Jetta and made his way to Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.
His alleged destination: Turkey, a common passageway into Syria thanks to lawless border areas there. But at the airport FBI agents approached him and told him he wasn’t going anywhere, according to an FBI agent’s account detailed in court documents.
When the agents told Yusuf they believed he was going to Syria to join a terrorist group, he said, “I never committed no terrorist crimes that you’re accusing me of,” the court documents say. Subsequent investigation into Yusuf tied the Jetta to a car accident a week earlier. However, when FBI agents identified the driver of that car, Abdi Nur, they learned he had left for Turkey that morning, according to authorities.
He had booked a two-way airplane ticket, having him return on June 16. But he never got on that return flight, authorities say.
In online messages since reviewed by the FBI, Nur said he had gone “to the brothers” and he’s “not coming back,” according to court documents. Nur’s family told the FBI he became “much more religious” in the months leading up to his departure, with Nur imploring his family to become more religious too, the documents say.
Nur and Yusuf have been charged with providing material support to a terrorist group. The FBI said the charges are part of a broader probe targeting “numerous individuals” in Minnesota alone who have tried to join ISIS or succeeded in doing so.
In all, nearly 150 Americans have traveled to war-torn Syria or tried to join terrorists there. And of the dozens who have traveled and then returned to the United States, only a “small group” of them fought with a terrorist group and might be inclined to launch an attack back in the U.S., federal counterterrorism officials have determined.
The process of putting potentially dangerous returnees like that behind bars, however, has been slow and painstaking, as detailed in a recent ABC News report.
"This is a global crisis and we will continue our efforts to prevent Americans from joining the fight and to hold accountable those who provide material support to foreign terrorist organizations,” said the head of the Justice Department National Security Division, John Carlin.