Federal prosecutors have flipped an Islamic State soldier who has agreed to testify against an accused Islamic State fighter from Dearborn, Michigan captured on a Syrian battlefield three years ago, an unprecedented level of cooperation during the war on terror.
Prosecutors disclosed the arrangement in a federal court filing in the case against Dearborn resident Ibraheem Musaibli, 30. His capture provided the U.S. government with a rare opportunity to prosecute an American accused of leaving the United States and fighting for the Islamic State group.
Court filings chart Musaibli’s journey from his parents perfume shop in Detroit to a Middle East war zone, describe a harrowing stint in a Syrian prison and international intrigue as the high school dropout negotiated his rescue via encrypted messages exchanged with a member of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force thousands of miles away in Detroit.
Defense lawyers are trying to suppress the messages, arguing the FBI task force officer used a code name and coercion while offering to rescue Musaibli, but only if he admitted being an Islamic State soldier.
“Just admit the truth,” the officer texted on April 23, 2018. “Any day a bomb could drop and blow your legs off or worse.”
Detroit U.S. District Judge David Lawson will consider suppressing the messages and statements Musaibli made while in custody at an April 7 hearing. Prosecutors requested he hold a hearing during which the unidentifiedIslamic State soldier would help the government authenticate evidence recovered from Islamic State territory, including rosters of Islamic State fighters, hospital records and other documents.
The Islamic State soldier who is prepared to help the government has pleaded guilty to providing material support to the militant group and is awaiting sentencing. Prosecutors are not naming him publicly at this time because of the perceived danger he would face for cooperating against a fellow Islamic State fighter.
Details about the government’s Islamic State witness and Musaibli’s backstory are contained in federal court files that provide a broader view of evidence gathered during the international investigation.
The evidence includes records recovered in Middle East war zones in at least two countries, rosters of fighters, Islamic State payroll records, hospital paperwork documenting Musaibli’s time in an Islamic State medical center and text messages exchanged on the Telegram app and Facebook Messenger.
“It will be quite interesting to see if the government is able to show the chain of custody and get the evidence into a court of law,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “This could really be something that sets the standard for an ISIS trial.”
The federal court filing provides an unprecedented view of what prosecutors say was Musaibli’s path to radicalization at the hands of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-born cleric who trained underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
What records show
Musaibli has been in custody since returning to the United States aboard a military plane in July 2018 after being arrested by FBI counterterrorism agents. He was charged with several crimes, including providing material support to the Islamic State group and receiving military training from a foreign terrorist organization, that could send him to prison for more than 20 years.
The case has lingered amid questions about Musaibli’s mental health, but the judge concluded in July that Musaibli was competent to stand trial.
Musaibli was born and raised in Dearborn, helped his father operate a perfume shop in Detroit and spent time in Yemen, his parents’ birth country. While there, he married a woman at age 19, fathered two children and attended a religious school in Dammaj, Yemen, from October 2013-March 2014.
While there, the school was besieged by Shiite rebels who fought with students and local tribesmen for several months. Musaibli returned to Dearborn with his wife and children following a ceasefire.
His wife and children, however, soon returned to Yemen, and Musaibli started watching jihadi propaganda videos online featuring al-Awlaki, the late imam who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, according to prosecutors.
Musaibli fathered two more children in the United States and Yemen but left before they were born, according to prosecutors, who provided a step-by-step travelogue of Musaibli’s overseas journey.
In fall 2015, he traveled through Saudi Arabia and Turkey. By early November, Musaibli was in Raqqa, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, according to the U.S. government.
He attended a 10-day religious training camp before traveling to Mosul, Iraq, for military training, prosecutors said.
“The military camp included training on crossing terrain with a machine gun, shooting a machine gun, and conducting ambush techniques,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Mulcahy wrote. “Upon graduation from the ISIS military training camp, the defendant swore allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.”
Musaibli later was equipped with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, vest, magazines, and grenades and assigned to a brigade named after the Muslim commander Tariq Bin Ziyad, prosecutors said. The brigade was comprised of mostly foreign terrorist fighters.
The brigade included at least one other American who, like Musaibli, left the United States to join the Islamic State group. The man disappeared in 2015 and joined the Islamic State in Iraq, according to the government.
By fall 2016, the man was assigned to the Tariq Bin Ziyad brigade, just like Musaibli, prosecutors allege.The man was injured while fighting for the Islamic State and later worked in clerical positions.
The clerical job involved updating and maintaining the battalion roster and payroll records, which prove Musaibli was an Islamic State fighter, prosecutors said.
The government’s witness
The government’s cooperating witness was captured in early 2019 and imprisoned in Hasakah, Syria. He was turned over to the FBI last year, flown back to America and convicted of providing material support to the Islamic State.
Prosecutors plan to have him help authenticate Islamic State documents obtained by the government, some of which the government says reference Musaibli. The fighter’s identity could be revealed as early as the April hearing.
The documents were found by a coalition of troops led by the U.S. military in Syria, while other evidence was recovered by Iraqi military forces. Troops found payroll records, electronic storage devices belonging to the terror organization and information stored in spreadsheets.
“ISIS is very good at documenting their own genocide,” George Washington expert Hughes said.
The documents help establish Musaibli was part of a conspiracy to support the Islamic State, according to the government, and that he underwent training and served as an Islamic State soldier. The evidence includes a Tariq Bin Ziyad roster recovered by Iraqi military forces in Mosul in February 2017.
The 18-page roster includes 341 names — including Musaibli’s — birth dates and Islamic State census number, similar to a Social Security number, prosecutors said. The roster also contained his alias, Abu ‘Abd-al-Rahman Al-Yemeni.
The alias, called a kunya, incorporates Musaibli’s nationality and his oldest son’s name, Abd Al Rahman.
Coalition forces also seized payroll records that included Musaibli’s alias and census number.
“The chart shows Musaibli receiving monthly payments for most of 2016, which aligns with Musaibli having joined ISIS sometime in late 2015,” Mulcahy, the prosecutor, wrote.
Musaibli fought on the front lines in Hit, Iraq, and stayed with the militants for more than 2 1/2 years and retreated with them as the group’s territory shrank.
What defendants say
In April 2018, he was in southern Syria trying to flee the Islamic State, according to his lawyers. Musaibli tried to get relatives to hire a smuggler to take him to Turkey or land not controlled by the group.
“He initiated communications with the FBI at the request of his parents in an attempt to enlist their help in fleeing ISIS,” Musaibli’s lawyer James Gerometta wrote.
Musaibli and the task force officer, who used the alias Rafiqa Rashid, started a three-month dialogue on Facebook Messenger and via Telegram that his lawyers said included the task force officer coercing Musaibli into making incriminating statements.
“Foremost, he feared he would be discovered by ISIS and beheaded as a spy,” the attorney wrote. “Also, at times he feared the United States would target him with a drone strike if he revealed his location.”
The officer “was aware of Mr. Musaibli’s desperate situation and used his desire to escape the deteriorating stability in southern Syria to coerce Mr. Musaibli into making incriminating statements,” his lawyer wrote.
The officer demanded Musaibli’s precise location and threatened to leave him in Islamic State territory, according to the defense.
“I don’t have to bargain with you Ibraheem. Your children want their dad alive. Your mom misses you desperately,” the officer wrote, according to texts cited by the defense lawyer. “How in the world do you think you can do this without getting killed or arrested by people that will kill or harm you?”
Musaibli surrendered to Syrian Democratic Forces on June 9, 2018, according to his lawyers. A New York Times report at the time said he was captured while trying to flee the Middle Euphrates River Valley in northern Syria.
Musaibli spent six weeks in an overcrowded prison in northeastern Syria, living in a 10-foot by 10-foot cell with as many as six other men. There was often no mattress, no edible food, no water and the heat was oppressive, his lawyers wrote.
Musaibli underwent multiple interrogations by SDF officers, flanked by an armed guard, his lawyer wrote. The officers typically threatened to turn Musaibli over to the Iraqi army, his lawyer wrote.
“At this time the Iraqi army was rumored to be killing prisoners suspected of having current or former ties with ISIS,” Gerometta wrote. “The most common statement by his interrogators was a guarantee that he would be sexually assaulted while in Shia hands.”
The officers also hit Musaibili and spat on him.
“He was subjected to sensory deprivation by the SDF during his period of custody there too.”
How U.S. found suspect
A fellow prisoner being interrogated by U.S. investigators alerted them that Musaibli was in the prison. Two weeks later, on July 23, 2018, the FBI took custody of Musaibli.
Agents fitted Musaibli with sensory deprivation “blackout” goggles, noise-canceling ear coverings and placed him in a van. He was driven to an airfield, flown to Kuwait and transferred to a larger military plane for a flight to the United States, his lawyer wrote.
Forty minutes into the flight, the goggles and ear coverings were removed and Musaibli met the FBI task force officer known as Rafiqa Rashid, with whom he had spent weeks exchanging encrypted messages.
The military plane landed in Gary, Indiana, on July 24. By then, Musaibli had been in FBI custody for about 23 hours, slept little and underwent repeated questioning, his lawyers said.
“The net effect of his extended time in SDF custody, previous custodial interrogations, and the sensory, food, and sleep deprivation was the creation of a coercive environment that caused Mr. Musaibli’s pre-interrogation waiver of his Miranda rights to be involuntary, and additionally rendered Mr. Musaibli’s statements involuntary,” his lawyer wrote.
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