Sajmir Alimehmeti shouldn’t have brought nunchucks when he tried to enter the U.K. in 2014. Immigration authorities took one look at them and kicked the Islamic State supporter back to New York, where a years-long investigation ensued.
Alimehmeti, known as Abdul Qawii, pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS Wednesday after working with an undercover federal agent to engage in terrorism, the Justice Department announced. He attempted to enter the U.K. once in October 2014 and again in December 2014. Authorities refused him entry because of the nunchucks the first time and because of photos of ISIS flags found on his phone the next time. Qawaii, 24, returned to the Bronx and later made contact with a federal agent posing as a fellow ISIS supporter.
Qawaii helped the agent get encrypted communications systems on his phone and told him of his plans to travel to Syria and join ISIS. The two developed a relationship and Qawaii shared him ISIS propaganda videos, including footage of decapitating prisoners. Eventually, Qawaii applied for a U.S. passport, falsely claiming his original had been lost. He was a U.S. citizen, however. he believed the rejections stamps on his original would prevent him from being able to leave the country.
Qawaii was arrested in May 2016. A subsequent search of his apartment unveiled an ISIS flag, ISIS propaganda footage, and an array of combat knives and other military equipment. His Wednesday guilty plea means he faces from 20 to 25 years in prison.
Qawaii is one of a slew of Americans to be arrested for supporting ISIS. The Justice Department threw Casey Charles Spain, a convicted Islamic State supporter, back in prison Feb. 12 after he broke parole less than three weeks after being released. Spain, 29, was found in possession of a firearm. This act was in violation of his parole and also illegal for felons in the state. The incident occurred less than three weeks after he finished serving seven years in prison for abducting and attempting to rape a child.
U.S. District Judge John Gibney, Jr. sentenced Spain to another 10 years in prison in accordance with the mandatory minimum sentence for gun crimes.
Spain became a radical Muslim while in prison, pledging support for the Islamic State and getting an ISIS flag tattooed on his back. Spain revealed to fellow inmates that he would try to travel to Syria and join ISIS upon his release, or commit acts of terrorism in the U.S. if he was prevented from traveling.
Law enforcement immediately began surveillance of Spain upon his release in August 2017, and he was recorded making phone calls to inmates to discuss plans for jihad. The FBI saw his radicalism and arranged for an undercover agent to approach him and offer a weapon. Spain agreed, but the 9 mm pistol was made inoperable by officers beforehand. The FBI and a SWAT team made the arrest immediately after he accepted the firearm.
U.S. prisons have a growing problem with Islamic radicalization, and the system has no programs in place to de-radicalize convicted terrorists.
A report from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University claims that the U.S. lags behind other Western countries in developing programs to de-radicalize captured Islamic radicals. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, one of the report’s authors, claims that while the U.S. doesn’t face the same number of ISIS or other terrorists as France or Sweden do, the U.S. still must ensure that prisons don’t become incubators of radical Islam.
“We have seen in Europe how extremist networks are created and cultivated in prisons with large populations of jihadis,” Meleagrou-Hitchens told The Wall Street Journal. “As this contingent continues to grow in U.S. federal prisons, we are likely to see similar patterns here.”
At least two members of the terror cell responsible for the 2015 Paris attacks met in prison. In the U.S., both terrorists responsible for the Halloween truck attack and December’s botched pipe bomb attack are now incarcerated. They help comprise the roughly 140 inmates currently incarcerated on charges of supporting ISIS.
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