Islamic State soldier to make unprecedented appearance to testify against Michigan man
DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — A convicted Islamic State soldier is expected to make federal court history Monday by testifying against a Dearborn man captured on a Syrian battlefield three years ago.
Prosecutors on Monday plan to call Minnesota resident Abdelhamid Al-Madioum, 24, as a cooperating witness to authenticate Islamic State documents seized during a counterterrorism investigation of accused Islamic State soldier and Dearborn resident Ibraheem Musaibli, The Detroit News has learned. Al-Madioum served in the same ISIS brigade as Musaibli and helped maintain ISIS records that refer to Musaibli, prosecutors said.
The court hearing in front of U.S. District Judge David Lawson will reunite two Americans captured on a Syrian battlefield in recent years, and Al-Madioum’s testimony will mark an unprecedented level of cooperation during the war on terror, legal experts say.
“It certainly is notable that they are bringing in, not just an expert, but another former Islamic State member who also is an American traveler,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Al-Madioum is not identified by name in federal court records filed in the Musaibli case. Instead, prosecutors refer to him as “Cooperating Witness #1” but two sources familiar with the investigation have confirmed Al-Madioum’s identity.
The hearing comes at a pivotal time for Musaibli, 31, a high school dropout and perfume shop worker who prosecutors say traveled to Syria in 2015, had ISIS military training and swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Musaibli is scheduled to stand trial in October and wants to suppress evidence gathered by members of an FBI joint terrorism task, including statements he made to a task force officer in encrypted chats and aboard a C-17 military airplane while being repatriated in July 2018.
The Monday court hearing will not be Al-Madioum’s first time on a big stage. In 2019, he spoke with CBS News from inside a Syrian prison while awaiting transport to the United States.
Al-Madioum is a Morocco native and naturalized U.S. citizen who lived in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb. Al-Madioum, a computer science major at a community college, disappeared while on summer vacation with his family visiting relatives in Casablanca in June 2015.
Investigators later learned he left Morocco for Istanbul, Turkey, one stop on a secret plan to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Al-Madioum served as an ISIS soldier in the Tariq Bin-Ziyad battalion until 2016. That is the same battalion as Musaibli, prosecutors said.
Al-Madioum was injured during one battle, lost most of his right arm and later served in an administrative role handling ISIS payroll records and the battalion roster. He surrendered to Syrian Democratic Forces in March 2019 and was transferred into U.S. custody last fall.
He pleaded guilty in January to providing material support to ISIS and faces up to 20 years in federal prison.
Prosecutors plan to have Al-Madioum help authenticate ISIS documents, including the roster and payroll records that purportedly identify Musaibli.
The government cannot authenticate payroll and roster records found in or near ISIS territory, Musaibli’s lawyers said in a filing.
“The fact that multiple documents appear to contain information consistent with identifying information of Mr. Musaibli is again not sufficient to satisfy the government’s requirement to authenticate these documents as unaltered authentic Islamic State documents,” defense lawyer, James Gerometta, wrote.
Dramatic testimony June 21 revealed FBI counterterrorism investigators spent months hunting Musaibli during an investigation that started with a tip in a small Caribbean island, led to Dearborn, Iraq and Syria. The investigation intensified in spring 2018 when computer data indicated the accused Sunni extremist was in Lebanon, sparking fears of an imminent terrorist attack against Christians and Shia Muslims.
During the manhunt, Musaibli allegedly exchanged a series of surreal, encrypted messages with the FBI task force officer who was trying to pinpoint his location, avert a terror attack and arrest a rarity in the world of counterterrorism: an American accused of leaving the United States and surviving as an ISIS soldier in an overseas war zone.
During conversations with an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force officer who used the alias Rafiqa Rashid that spanned six weeks, Musaibli allegedly rebuffed offers to rescue him from a war zone and he demanded unrealistic terms, including a pardon from President Donald Trump.
“I would remind him that the coalition forces were not going to stop and the bombs were going to continue to be dropped,” the officer testified. The officer is not being named due to safety concerns.
Musaibli responded by sending a photo of “The Andy Griffith Show” Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife and a music video.
“Roy Orbison,” the FBI task force officer said. “Only the Lonely.”
The bizarre responses clashed with information the FBI task force officer received from Musaibli’s dad, Izzy.
“Did he say his son could make a bomb and kill people?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Mulcahy asked the officer during the June 21 hearing.
“Yes,” the officer said.
Defense lawyers accuse the officer of using coercion to extract incriminating statements from Musaibli during the chats and offered to rescue him only if he admitted to being an ISIS soldier.
They do not concede that Musaibli was an ISIS soldier and have suggested he was a civilian living under ISIS rule.
“Taken in the light most favorable to the government, Mr. Musaibli was, at best, an ineffective and problematic soldier,” Gerometta wrote.
“In numerous interviews of admitted ISIS fighters, Mr. Musaibli is described as someone who lived in mosques and ‘sold Pepsi,’” the lawyer wrote.
There is evidence fellow soldiers worried Musaibli was a spy and records indicate he was reprimanded for leaving the battlefield, his lawyers added.
They also downplayed the impact of Musaibli’s alias — Abu ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Yemeni — appearing in ISIS records. Without more identifying details, the name is equivalent to John Smith, the lawyers argued.
The Musaibli investigation started with a tip in an unlikely locale.
A source emailed a tip to the State Department in Barbados in July 2016, writing that Musaibli had “joined the jihad,” the officer testified. The tipster attached a grainy photo of Musaibli posing next to an assault rifle and screenshots of text messages.
The FBI task force officer interviewed Musaibli’s father, Izzy Musaibli. He told the investigator Ibraheem Musaibli had become radicalized online in approximately 2012 and was in Mosul, Iraq.
“With whom?” Mulcahy, the prosecutor, asked the officer during the June 21 hearing.
“The Islamic State,” the officer said.
“Did Izzy say his son wanted to die in the path of Allah?” Mulcahy asked.
“He did,” the officer said.
The officer learned from interviews that Ibraheem Musaibli was using WhatsApp, the messaging app. And investigators read Facebook messages after obtaining a search warrant in which Musaibli said he was with the ISIS in Iraq.
“Fighting Americans and the Shias,” the officer said.
“Did he consistently indicate he was engaged in jihad?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes,” the officer said.
In February 2017, seven months after the first tip, the State Department received a second tip about Musaibli. The tip included a photo of Musaibli posing in front of an ISIS flag and a video of him thanking his family for sending him to the land of jihad, the officer testified.
By spring 2018, investigators had obtained Musaibli’s phone number and were trying to pinpoint his location.
Investigators believe Musaibli was using virtual private networks, or VPNs, utilized by ISIS to thwart government surveillance. The networks mask the user’s Internet Protocol address so it would appear Musaibli was in the United Kingdom one day and Norway the next.
Then, Musaibli’s IP address consistently showed he was in Lebanon.
“Why was that a concern to you?” Mulcahy asked the FBI task force officer.
“Because Lebanon is predominantly Shia and Christian, and it would be concerning if a Sunni Islamic State member would go to Lebanon,” the officer said. “In my opinion, it was for an imminent attack.”
Musaibli’s father said he believed his son was in Syria and indicated Ibraheem Musaibli wanted to return to the U.S.
The counterterrorism officer asked Musaibli to send his geocoordinates to prove he was in Syria.
He refused, fearing the U.S. military would target him in a drone strike. He also refused to send a photo of a nearby landmark, the officer testified.
“We were still trying to establish if he was in Lebanon, planning an attack in Lebanon,” the officer said.
“It was very concerning,” the officer added, “that this was some sort of trap.”
By late April 2018, the FBI started to believe Musaibli was, indeed, in Syria because he referenced leaflets distributed in the eastern city of Hajin by coalition forces that encouraged Islamic State members to surrender to Syrian Democratic Forces.
Musaibli requested money so he could hire a smuggler and escape ISIS.
“I’m a risk-taker,” Musaibli said, according to the officer’s testimony.
Musaibli tried negotiating terms of his potential surrender.
“He wanted a variety of things: he wanted to speak to the judge prior to turning himself in; he wanted assurances of no jail time; he wanted a presidential pardon; he wanted to stop in Yemen to see his wife and have her come back so she could be in the cell with him,” the officer said.
“What was your response?” the prosecutor asked.
“That everything he was asking, we could not do,” the officer testified.
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.
He was transferred to FBI custody several weeks later. The officer and other agents flew to the Middle East to bring Musaibli home to face charges. He is charged with several crimes, including providing material support to the ISIS group and receiving military training from a foreign terrorist organization, that could send him to prison for more than 20 years.
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, Gerometta, wrote.
The defense team faults the government for “coercive” treatment while Musaibli was transported back to the U.S. while wearing sensory deprivation equipment. The officer testified the equipment was to protect Musaibli, not disorient him.
Defense lawyers want to prevent prosecutors from using the chats at trial. 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,” Gerometta wrote.
During the June 21 hearing, the lawyer focused on federal agents questioning Musaibli aboard the C-17 airplane when he did not have a lawyer.
“You could have interviewed Ibraheem in the United States, correct?” he asked the officer.
The officer said there would not have been enough time for a comprehensive interview.
“You could have once he was appointed an attorney,” Gerometta said.
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