Three New York men were charged with conspiring to aid the Islamic State jihadi group and musing about terrorist acts ranging from the murder of FBI agents or cops to killing President Barack Obama, in a Brooklyn federal court complaint unsealed Wednesday.
Two of the accused were arrested attempting to join the terrorist group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL -- one caught at Kennedy Airport heading to Syria. The other suspect was scheduled to leave next month, federal officials said. The third suspect, who is alleged to have helped the others financially, was arrested in Florida, officials said.
The arrests came just a week after a British hunt for three teenage girls suspected of traveling to join ISIS made news, and triggered stern warnings about the threat of domestic recruitment over the Internet.
ISIS "in particular is putting out a siren song through their slick propaganda," said FBI Director James Comey, pointing to violent-extremist investigations ongoing in all 50 states. "'Troubled soul, come to the Caliphate . . . And if you can't come, kill somebody where you are.' "
"This is real," said NYPD Commissioner William Bratton. "This is the concern, to inspire, without ever going to the Mideast."
The three Brooklyn residents -- Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, and Abror Habibov, 30, both citizens of Uzbekistan, and Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, of Kazakhstan -- were charged with conspiring to provide material support to ISIS.
Prosecutors said Habibov owned several mall kiosks that repaired mobile phones, and employed Saidakhmetov. Habibov allegedly agreed to pay for the other two to travel to join ISIS. Juraboev was identified in a brief court appearance as an employee of a Gyro King restaurant.
Investigators first got on to the trio last August when they spotted a posting from Juraboev on an Uzbek-language ISIS propaganda forum, Hilofatnews, wondering if he could join the cause without traveling overseas, the government charged.
"I am in USA now but we don't have any arms," he wrote, according to the complaint. "But is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here? What I'm saying is, to shoot Obama and then get shot ourselves, will it do?"
Juraboev reaffirmed those sentiments when he was visited by the FBI, according to the complaint, saying he would do whatever ISIS commanded -- from assassinating Obama to planting a bomb on Coney Island -- but he did not have an "imminent plan" to do so. He identified Saidakhmetov as a friend and co-worker who shared his sentiments.
The complaint did not explain why Juraboev was not charged in August, but said federal agents continued to monitor the three and their communications -- including exchanges with an ISIS intermediary in Iraq -- and used an informant who approached Juraboev at a mosque and then began planning travel to Syria with him and Saidakhmetov.
In one conversation, the government said, Saidakhmetov discussed joining the military to spy for ISIS or, alternatively, open fire on American soldiers, and said he was ready to wreak havoc in the United States if they were blocked from traveling abroad.
"It is legal in America to carry a gun," he allegedly said. "We will go and purchase one handgun . . . then go and shoot one police officer. Boom . . . Then we will take his gun, bullets and a bulletproof vest . . . Then we will do the same with a couple of others. Then we will go to the FBI headquarters, kill the FBI people."
Saidakhmetov's mother tried to block his efforts to join ISIS by confiscating his passport, prosecutors said, but he forged an application for travel documents. On Feb. 19 he allegedly bought a $571 ticket to go to Turkey Wednesday. He was arrested on a Kennedy Airport jetway. Juraboev had a ticket to go to Turkey in March, officials said.
The two -- both shaggy-haired, boyish looking young men wearing hoodies and jeans -- were detained after a brief appearance in federal court in Brooklyn. They were held without bail. Prosecutor Doug Pravda said they had admitted what they were up to.
"Both of them confessed the purpose of their travel was to join ISIS and wage jihad," Pravda told U.S. Magistrate Lois Bloom. "And Mr. Juraboev said he did not intend to come back."
Neither defendant entered a plea. Juraboev's lawyer declined to comment after the hearing. Saidakhmetov's lawyer, Adam Perlmutter, said his client would plead not guilty, and complained that the government had handled the case in a "heavy-handed" way.
Habibov is being held without bail in Florida. Officials said he had overstayed his U.S. visa, while Saidakhmetov and Juraboev are both legal permanent residents. The three each face up to 15 years in prison.
Employees at Nil Travel on Coney Island, where Saidakhmetov bought his plane ticket, said they recalled him clearly.
Owner Bahri Caliskan called him "a regular American teenager." Assistant manager Frank Cakir said he was shocked by the ISIS revelations. "I'm still nervous," he said. "I'm shaking."
At a news conference with Bratton at 1 Police Plaza, Diego Rodriguez, head of the FBI's New York office, called the decision to let the case play out after Juraboev's initial threats against Obama "normal protocol."
"We are always trying to identify these folks, their hierarchy, network," he said.
Bratton said the case illustrated the dangers of the political fight in Washington that threatened Department of Homeland Security funding because of immigration disputes.
"This is not the time to effectively hold our counterterrorism agencies hostage to our political machinations," he said. "This is not the time to be engaging in political rhetoric, political grandstanding."
Comey, speaking in Washington, said the threat from ISIS was particularly toxic because they had mastered Internet recruitment through a "chaotic spider web of connections . . . moving at the speed of light" and unlike al-Qaida, it encourages random violence, not major attacks.
ISIS and "other groups are about trying to kill somebody," he said.
Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general awaiting confirmation, did not attend the news conference but joined the chorus of officials who said the case was a sign of growing danger.
"The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies," she said in a statement. "Anyone who threatens our citizens and our allies, here or abroad, will face the full force of American justice."
With Anthony M. DeStefano, Nicole Fuller, Ivan Pereira
and Dan Rivoli