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Texas man convicted of using social media app to recruit for ISIS and lying about it

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Said Azzam Mohamad Rahim led a double life.

The 42-year-old Richardson man lived quietly and ran an Oak Cliff convenience store, seemingly blending into ordinary American existence.

At the same time, he raged obsessively against “infidels” and other enemies of the Islamic State online and used the social media chat group he moderated to call for their slaughter at home and abroad, by any means.

“Every single day, all they talk about is killing people,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Errin Martin told jurors Friday morning during closing arguments in Rahim’s trial. “All they promote is hate. All they promote is murder.”

A federal jury in Dallas convicted Rahim late Friday of 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.

Rahim did not testify in his defense, nor did the defense call any witnesses on his behalf during the four-day trial. His attorney, James Whalen, argued that he had exercised his right to free speech by sharing strongly held views with “like-minded people” on a social media app called Zello. Whalen said the government never produced any evidence that Rahim’s words incited anyone to commit murder or other acts of terrorism.

But Martin and fellow prosecutor Taryn Meeks told jurors that Rahim went beyond mere offensive speech and broke federal law when he used the platform to recruit fighters for ISIS. The purpose, they said: to wage bloody jihad against nonbelievers in the Middle East and wherever they might be.

The trial highlighted the novel recruitment tactics of ISIS, which revolutionized ways to join a foreign terrorist group by making it easy, flexible and informal. ISIS told its followers to use social media and internet propaganda to publicize its mission and goals, and to recruit fighters. The grass-roots effort called on “independent actors” or “lone wolves” to kill wherever they lived.

Rahim was an enthusiastic follower of that method, the government argued.

And membership in ISIS could be had without ever traveling or meeting its leadership. Meeks said a government expert who directs a university program on extremism testified during the trial that “if you act for ISIS, you’re ISIS.”

Rahim didn’t just encourage people to kill, he did so with specifics, such as the use of poison, rocks, trucks, burning or even by pushing people off buildings, prosecutors said. Rahim was not a “keyboard warrior,” Meeks said. He bragged on Zello about having mobilized people to fight for ISIS.

“It was not just talk, and it was not a joke,” Meeks told jurors. “This was the real deal.”

Meeks, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said an FBI agent testified that Rahim was an “immediate threat.”

Martin and Meeks played audio recordings for the jury of what they said was Rahim speaking enthusiastically in Arabic about killing for ISIS. The recordings were taken from his Zello channel.

“That was his whole life,” Martin told jurors. “He did it all day, every day.”

Whalen said after the verdict that it had been a difficult case from the start and that he was disappointed for his client.

“The word terrorism starts you off behind the eight ball,” he said. “It’s hard to get past that.”

War effort

Rahim’s actions, first discovered in early 2016 during an FBI terrorism investigation, were supporting a “war effort,” Meeks said.

A co-conspirator, a Moroccan living illegally in Italy, told his supporters on Zello that ISIS had to conquer not only the Middle East but also bring their fight to the White House and eventually take over the world.

Rahim’s Zello channel, “State of the Islamic Caliphate,” had 10,000 users and was public, meaning anyone could listen in to hear the message, Meeks said.

Rahim even issued his own fatwas, or religious orders based on Islamic law, she said.

Agents learned Rahim was planning to travel to Jordan on March 5, 2017. But when he arrived at DFW International Airport, he was unable to obtain a boarding pass because he was on a “no-fly” list, the prosecutors said.

Agents with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force were waiting for him at the airport and questioned him about his activities. Rahim told agents, among other things, that the purpose of his trip was to see his daughter, who lives in Jordan with her mother.

But federal authorities said Rahim expressed a “willingness and a hope” to join ISIS fighters in Syria, which borders Jordan.

Rahim had recently shaved off his beard and was carrying about $7,000 in cash as well as his birth certificate, the prosecutors said.

“He meant to stay,” Martin told the jury.

Offensive speech

Whalen said the lies Rahim told to agents at the airport were not material, as required by law, and therefore not illegal.

To be material, the false statements had to be capable of influencing a decision by the FBI, he said.

But agents already knew all about Rahim by that stage, having spied on his business and online chat group for months, Whalen said. “They watched him 24/7 for almost a year,” the defense attorney told the jury. Therefore, Rahim’s lies didn’t matter, he said.

But Martin told jurors the law doesn’t require the government to show that the FBI was misled by Rahim’s lies.

Whalen also argued that independently advocating for a cause is not equal to providing material support to ISIS. He said the government provided no evidence that Rahim’s speech resulted in any new ISIS fighters.

“They can’t show you anybody he recruited,” Whalen told jurors.

And he told jurors that prosecutors were merely speculating when they suggested his client was traveling to Jordan in order to fight for ISIS. Whalen said Rahim had a return ticket to Dallas.

The attorney used the government’s example of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting to make a point. Rahim had allegedly praised that deadly attack and others committed by lone wolves in the name of ISIS.

Whalen read aloud a social media comment about the Florida attack from a self-described religious Christian who called for the U.S. government to line gays up against a wall and execute them. That was among the many offensive comments made in the wake of the shooting, Whalen said.

“You have a right to speak your mind,” he told jurors, whether you support the Bible or the Quran. “This is what the case is all about.”


© 2019 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.