Social media postings by Arizonan Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal served as the “launching pad” for a 24-year-old suburban New Yorker to join the Islamic State and eventually die fighting in Syria, a prosecutor said Tuesday as a terrorist recruiting trial began in Manhattan federal court.
“He wasn’t a fighter or a terrorist operative himself, but he played an equally crucial role,” said prosecutor Andrew J. DeFilippis in his opening argument. “He helped ISIS find one more fighter who was willing to train, kill and die for ISIS.”
El-Gammal, 44, of Phoenix suburb Avondale, is accused of helping recruit Samy el-Goarany, who grew up in upstate Middletown and was attending Baruch College when he suddenly departed for Syria via Turkey two years ago.
Last year el-Goarany’s family received information from an unidentified individual that he had died and a copy of a handwritten letter from el-Goarany saying it would be delivered if he died in battle. Prosecutors say he is dead.
While the government claims el-Gammal played a key role in encouraging el-Goarany and linking him up with an intermediary in Turkey, defense lawyers said the two were friends on Facebook but their client had nothing to do with el-Goarany’s fatal decision to join ISIS.
“He did not help Samy el-Goarany,” lawyer Annalisa Miron told jurors. “He did not know what Samy was up to…. He is not an ISIS recruiter. He is a scapegoat.”
She sharply disputed the claim that el-Gammal was an ISIS recruiter, calling him “Jimmy” and describing him as a naturalized citizen from Egypt who was fully Americanized — a fan of Jimmy Carter, Red Bull and R&B who visited Niagara Falls and prized a Marilyn Monroe poster.
El-Gammal was as much in the dark as others close to el-Goarany, who told friends he was going to the Mideast to work with refugees or work for a computer company and confided his real plans only to a brother and a cousin, Miron said. He connected with ISIS through Twitter, she said.
“The government is looking for someone to blame,” she said. “Mr. Gammal did not buy a ticket, is not an ISIS recruiter and is not guilty.”
Prosecutors contend el-Goarany was drawn to el-Gammal’s “jihadi persona” online including postings saying he was “with the State” and supported beheadings. El-Gammal came to New York to provide the name of his contact in Turkey in person, the government said.
The two continued to correspond about el-Goarany’s progress after he went overseas, DeFilippis said, using codes – describing ISIS as “the company” and el-Goarany as an “intern” – and encryption. “Powerful proof that they had something to hide,” the prosecutor said.
They said their evidence will include social media exchanges between el-Gammal and el-Goarany, testimony from his family, and a bizarre video made after el-Gammal’s arrest but before el-Goarany’s death in which he wore ISIS combat regalia and denied that el-Gammal had anything to do with him joining ISIS.
“It is a transparent, almost ridiculous denial, which is almost an admission of what did happen,” DeFilippis said.
The trial resumes on Wednesday.