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Supporter of Islamic State terror group nabbed in undercover sting in FL, FBI says

FBI agents. (Melanie Rodgers Cox/US Air Force)

A Tampa man faces federal charges after FBI agents said he gave “material support” to the Islamic State and may have scouted Honeymoon Island State Park for a possible attack.

Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, 23, is charged with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

Al-Azhari was arrested Sunday in a federal sting operation in which he acquired weapons from an FBI informant with whom he’d shared his desires to carry out a mass shooting on behalf of a terror group, according to a criminal complaint.

The document refers to the terror group as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Al-Azhari, a U.S. citizen, served three years in prison in Saudi Arabia after being convicted in 2015 of attempting to join a terrorist organization there while traveling to Syria to fight against the Syrian government, according to the complaint. In late 2018, he returned to the U.S. — first to California, where his grandmother lives, and then to Tampa.

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He spent much of this spring trying to illegally acquire guns from an undercover FBI agent posing as an eBay seller, the complaint said. Al-Azhari called off the deal after Tampa police arrested him for trying to carry a pistol into a Home Depot. The complaint goes on to say that Al-Azhari worked at a Tampa Home Depot, though it doesn’t specify which one.

In late April, according to the complaint, Al-Azhari also used the online shopping site Wish to order a bulletproof vest, a balaclava and materials that he’d talked about converting into a firearm silencer.

Much of the complaint details the FBI’s monitoring of Al-Azhari’s online and phone communications through the spring. He regularly read Islamic State news and participated in Islamic State-focused chat rooms. He researched bomb-making and disguises.

FBI agents said he also traveled multiple times to Orlando, specifically to Pulse nightclub. That was the site of the 2016 mass shooting that killed 49 people and injured 53 other, authorities say, carried out by a shooter who’d sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. At least one of those times, agents said, Al-Azhari took photos of the building and later told the confidential source who participated in the sting that he wanted to do something like what the shooter had done.

Agents said they also found self-shot videos on Al-Azhari’s iPhone in which he showed off guns, mimicked shooting people and announced his support for the Islamic State.

“God willing, the exhalted, the Islamic State is lasting,” he said at the end of one of the videos, according to the complaint.

Earlier this month, agents said, Al-Azhari drove to Honeymoon Island but turned around once he got there. In the early morning hours two days later, he searched on Google maps for “FBI” and “central intelligence” as well as Honeymoon Island, Clearwater Beach and “busy beach.” Agents said in the complaint that they believe he was looking for a target.

On May 20, agents said, Al-Azhari started talking with the confidential source, who has a criminal record that includes robbery and gun possession convictions. Over the next four days, according to the complaint, they talked about acquiring guns, and Al-Azhari talked about his desires to kill Americans and move to Iraq or Syria.

“I want to join ISIS,” he told the source, according to the complaint. “They are the real followers.”

Al-Azhari also told the source that he was keeping track of locations where he’d seen military license plates or “anything government-related,” agents said, and suggested the two target a police officer. On Saturday, agents said, the source showed Al-Azhari pictures of a Glock pistol and an AK-47 — the kinds of guns he’d tried to buy from the eBay seller. The source told Al-Azhari they were his cousin’s guns, and the cousin was willing to sell.

The two agreed to pool their money for the Glock and a silencer, according to the complaint. That afternoon, they met in Tampa, where the source gave Al-Azhari a bag containing the gun and silencer. Al-Azhari took the bag and got into the source’s passenger seat, at which point FBI agents said they arrested him.

Al-Azhari was being held Wednesday in the Pinellas County jail at the request of federal agents. The charge he faces could carry a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison if he’s convicted.

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© 2020 the Tampa Bay Times