An Arizona man was convicted Monday of helping Baruch College student Samy el-Goarany join the Islamic State in the first ISIS recruitment trial in federal court in Manhattan after what jurors called “different deliberations” in a case dependent on ambiguous social media postings.
Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal, 44, of Avondale, Arizona, faces a mandatory 10 years and up to 55 years in prison for recruiting and providing a contact in Turkey for el-Goarany, 24, of upstate Goshen, N.Y., who traveled to Istanbul and then Syria and died in battle in 2015.
Although President Donald Trump has spoken about steering more terrorism cases to military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the verdict vindicated the effectiveness of the traditional court system.
“Once again, we have shown that terrorists and terrorist enablers can be brought to justice fairly, openly, and swiftly in the crown jewel of our justice system — civilian courts,” said Bharara, who has already been named by Trump to continue in his post.
The verdict followed a two-week trial and three days of deliberation. U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos said the note informing him of a verdict said the case had been “difficult,” and he attributed it to prosecutors’ use of extensive chatter on Facebook to make their case.
“It was a very different kind of evidence that has been presented,” he said. “We’ll be seeing many more of these cases based on backward-looking social media posts.”
The jury foreman, a nonprofit administrator from Rockland County who declined to give his name, echoed the judge and said jurors were split 75-25 at the start before having time to pore over exchanges between el-Gammal, his Turkish contact, el-Goarany and el-Goarany’s brother.
“On social media you can interpret any number of things any number of ways,” he said. “It took a long time.”
El-Gammal and el-Goarany, the Egyptian-American son of a developer who had formerly been a general in Egypt, met online, where el-Gammal signaled his support for ISIS. El-Gammal later visited el-Goarany in New York and gave him a phone contact for a friend in Istanbul.
El-Goarany’s younger brother Tarek, who admitted knowing of his brother’s plans and helping him, testified under a grant of immunity that Samy el-Goarany said that el-Gammal “helped” him. Prosecutors also said deleted posts, encryption and codes showed el-Gammal was up to no good.
The defense said el-Gammal believed el-Goarany was going to Turkey to help Syrian refugees, and argued that he was being made a scapegoat because of radical sentiments he expressed online when members of el-Goarany’s family were more culpable.
The foreman said jurors sympathized with the complaints about el-Goarany’s family and believed both his brother and father lied on the stand. “We were bothered,” he said. “But at the end of the day they weren’t on trial and someone else was, so it wasn’t in our province.”
He also said the jury took care to disregard evidence about el-Gammal’s radical sentiments, including posts in which he said “I am with the State,” and celebrated an ISIS conquest of Mosul.
“We had pretty strong feelings this is America and people have the right to say things we may not like,” the foreman said.