Sajmir Alimehmeti, a 22-year-old Bronx resident, thought he was helping a like-minded individual travel to Syria to fight for ISIS—but that individual was in fact an undercover law enforcement agent, and Alimehmeti, also known as Abdul Qawii, was arrested today, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has announced.
According to the criminal complaint against Alimehmeti, he first displayed an interest in going to fight for the Islamic State in 2014, when he attempted to enter the United Kingdom via Manchester while carrying camouflage clothing and nunchucks in his suitcase. He was denied entrance, but allegedly tried once more a couple months later, this time flying into Heathrow Airport. Authorities seized his cellphone and laptop, on which they found images of ISIS flags and IED attacks, according to the complaint. Once again, he was sent back to the U.S.
The following summer, Alimehmeti allegedly made a number of suspicious online purchases: he bought a number of knives; a "24-inch survival pocket chainsaw;" a reversible face mask; a set of handcuffs; and gloves with steel knuckles.
In the fall of 2015, Alimehmeti began to meet the four undercover operators—members of the FBI and NYPD—who he believed to be fellow ISIS sympathizers, according to the complaint. He allegedly expressed interest in traveling to Syria to join ISIS, but said he needed to get a new passport under a different name, since his had been denied so many times. Alimehmeti apparently believed he was helping one of the undercover informants travel to Syria to join ISIS: he allegedly helped him buy boots, get a new cell phone, and get a compass.
The complaint further alleges that Alimehmeti helped the undercover agent travel from Manhattan to a Queens hotel where he would meet someone who was theoretically preparing travel documents for the agent to use to travel to Syria. Alimehmeti allegedly gave the agent a piece of paper with his name and contact information so that the agent could give it to the document facilitator, and told him, "I'm ready to...go with you man...you know I would. I'm done with this place."
Alimehmeti is facing charges of providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and making a false statement in an application for a United States passport, which carry maximum sentences of 20 and 10 years, respectively.
Some of the images found on Alimehmeti's laptop and cell phone. (DOJ)
Governor Cuomo called Alimehmeti's arrest "another example of the continuing threat posed by global terrorist groups like ISIL," and said that "as Governor, I want to assure all New Yorkers that we are doing everything in our power to keep our state safe, and will continue to remain in constant communication with our federal and local law enforcement partners. While law enforcement is working aggressively to conduct investigations like those that led to the arrest of Sajmir Alimehmeti, the public is reminded to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity."
Information about Alimehmeti's lawyer wasn't immediately available, but the use of undercover informants has drawn criticism from some defense attorneys, who argue that the informants are leading young people into crimes they otherwise might not commit. In a 2011 Mother Jones investigation into the matter, one lawyer for a defendant arrested after his interactions with an undercover informant argued that "defendants would not have done anything if not kicked in the ass by government agents...They're creating crimes to solve crimes so they can claim a victory in the war on terror." Officials, on the other hand, say that the individuals that they target are predisposed to committing crimes anyway.
An FBI informant was instrumental in building the case against six Brooklyn men who were arrested recently in an alleged ISIS plot, apparently meeting them at a local mosque and encouraging them in their dreams of joining ISIS.
According to Alimehmeti's neighbors, with whom the New York Times spoke, he had become more religious over the past few years, but disappeared for a while in 2013—one neighbor thought he had gone to Albania to visit his brother, who was arrested on assault and weapons charges in 2015—and was "different" when he returned.
"He got calmer," one neighbor said. "He started working and saying he was going to school. I didn't see him outside as much."