“ISIS will chop your head off.”
That was how Taryn Meeks began her opening statement Tuesday to a federal jury in Dallas that’s hearing testimony in the international terrorism trial of a Richardson man.
Meeks, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said those were among the words Azzam Mohamad Rahim uttered during his lengthy online campaign to recruit others to join ISIS and kill nonbelievers at home and abroad.
“Smash his head on the wall,” the government also quoted Rahim as saying on Zello, a social media platform. “Think of a way to kill the biggest number of people possible.”
Rahim, 42, sporting a bald head and thick beard, is charged with lying to the FBI about his support for the Islamic State and with plotting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He has been locked up since his March 2017 arrest. The trial is expected to last about a week.
Details from his indictment and two detention hearings revealed how Rahim allegedly used the internet to mobilize people to engage in jihad, or holy war. Rahim, a U.S. citizen who owns or used to own an Oak Cliff convenience store, told listeners on Zello to kill as many “infidels” as possible, court records say.
He is charged with six counts of making a false statement to a federal agency, one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, and one count of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
The indictment says Rahim provided ISIS with “services and personnel” from October 2014 to March 2017. Prosecutors plan to detail those allegations during the trial.
Rahim didn’t just encourage people to kill, he did so with specific detail, such as the use of poison, rocks, trucks, burning or even by pushing people off buildings, prosecutors said.
And Meeks said Rahim not only used the Zello channel he controlled to recruit people around the world to commit “horrendous acts of violence,” he bragged about how many members of his channel had already mobilized for jihad.
“This isn’t just talk,” Meeks told the jury. “They would seek out the defendant for guidance.”
Rahim even took credit for an ISIS-inspired attack on an Istanbul nightclub in 2017 that killed 39 people, Meeks said. Rahim claimed to have called for an attack in Turkey about a month before, she said.
And when a truck barreled into a crowd of people in Nice, France, that same year, Rahim cheered the resulting murders of 86 people, she said.
“I was happy for this act,” Rahim said, according to Meeks. “Those dogs.”
Meeks also told jurors that Rahim conspired with Mouner El Aoual, a Moroccan citizen who is being held an Italian prison for allegedly planning a terrorist attack in that country. Italian police officials are expected to testify during the trial about their investigation of El Aoual, who also was a Zello administrator. Meeks said El Aoual had “bomb-making abilities” and agreed to develop a “lone wolf
Zello is a smartphone app that works like a two-way radio, Meeks told the jury of eight women and five men. You push a button to speak. Rahim created the channel, “State of the Islamic Caliphate,” and controlled who could speak on it, she said. Zello has low bandwidth and can be used in areas of the world with low connectivity like Syria, said Meeks.
She told jurors they will hear audio recordings Rahim made on Zello that have been translated from the original Arabic.
Rahim’s lawyer, James Whalen, told jurors that his client did say some “very offensive things” but that his words didn’t rise to the level of providing support to a terrorist group.
“They were simply words,” Whalen said.
He also said Rahim’s false statements to FBI agents were not material to the allegations in the case and therefore not a crime. The answers Rahim gave didn’t “matter,” Whalen told jurors.
Rahim, a lifelong follower of Islam, was born in New Jersey and grew up in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said Whalen in court documents.
Whalen has previously said in court records that prosecutors aren’t aware of any specific violent acts that Rahim inspired. He also has argued that his client’s writings were protected speech under the First Amendment.
“Even Mr. Rahim’s alleged statements praising acts of violence … and speaking of potential acts of violence … do not rise to the level of imminent incitement,” Whalen said in a court filing.
U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle ruled prior to trial that the government could show the jury evidence that Rahim claimed to have previously been a member of Hamas. In his Zello comments, Rahim denounced Hamas for its “weaknesses” and declared ISIS to be “stronger and more in line with his beliefs,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Errin Martin, in a court filing.
Boyle did not allow the government to present evidence that Rahim had been jailed twice in the West Bank, once for fighting and another time for his involvement in a car wreck that killed someone on a bicycle.
The FBI began surveilling Rahim online after launching an investigation into Zello in the spring of 2016, on the suspicion that it was being used to support terrorist groups.
Dwayne Golomb, an FBI agent, told jurors that in March 2016, he was assigned to look into a Zello channel participant who was thought to be living in Dallas. The individual, who turned out to be Rahim, used several monikers and hid his identity, Golomb said.
Zello’s chief technology officer told jurors that his app has 130 million users worldwide and that up to 6,000 people can be connected at once.
In addition to subpoenas, agents applied for and received a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Whalen said in court records his client’s business also was surveilled “almost constantly for almost two years.”
Agents learned Rahim was planning to travel to Jordan on March 5, 2017.
He was arrested at DFW International Airport after agents with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned him there. Rahim had recently shaved off his beard and was carrying about $7,000 in cash at the time, court records show.
He was having difficulty getting a boarding pass to Jordan from Lufthansa Airlines because he was on a “no-fly” list, according to court documents in the case.
Rahim told agents the purpose of his trip was to see his daughter, who lives there with her mother. But federal authorities said Rahim expressed a “willingness and a hope” to join ISIS fighters in Syria, which borders Jordan.
Agents said they found a .357-caliber handgun at his store as well as a large knife and a magazine loaded with bullets from an AR-10 rifle.
Whalen told jurors during his opening statement that FBI agents told Rahim at the airport that they could help him obtain a boarding pass. That was a lie, he said.
“Mr. Rahim was never going to get on that plane,” Whalen said. “And they never told him that.”
Rahim is one of several North Texans who have been recently been accused of trying to support and/or engage in international terrorism.
Matin Azizi-Yarand, 18, a former Plano high school student, was sentenced in April to 20 years in state prison after pleading guilty to an ISIS-inspired plot to commit mass murder at a Collin County mall.
And Michael Kyle Sewell, 18, of Arlington is accused in a criminal complaint of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization for trying to recruit fighters on social media to join an Islamist terrorism group based in Pakistan.
Rahim told his listeners on Zello that it’s easy to obtain a firearm in the U.S., according to prosecutors. “I mean, most everyone is armed. It’s not hard to get weapons. You can go anywhere carrying a weapon,” he allegedly said.
Other comments, all spoken in Arabic, attributed to Rahim include:
“Kill if you have a chance … it is well known that shedding of the blood of the infidel is lawful.”
“Kill them, I mean, with the intention of jihad, with the intention of you being a mujahideen for the sake of god.”
“Kill. And do not consult anyone or seek the opinion of others. Kill. Kill them and do not show them mercy or compassion, for neither the civilian clothes protect them nor the military uniform.”
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