A 23-year-old Tampa man is accused of planning to carry out an ISIS terrorist attack in Tampa Bay. Targets included Honeymoon Island.
TAMPA, FL — A 23-year-old Tampa man is accused of planning to carry out a terrorist attack in Tampa Bay on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the filing of a criminal complaint charging Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari with “attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization,” namely ISIS.
If convicted, Al-Azhari faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.
According to the 63-page complaint affidavit, Al-Azhari was an ISIS supporter who planned to carry out an attack in the Tampa Bay area. The justice department said Al-Azhari researched and scouted potential targets in the Tampa area, including Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, the Tampa FBI field office and Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.
He also rehearsed portions of the attack and practiced making statements on the video camera on his iPhone that he planned to release after the attack, according to the justice department.
“Know America. Today is your emergency. Today we kill from you guys like you killed from us,” was among the statements he made, according to the affidavit. “This is a revenge for Muslims.”
Another video showed Al-Azhari wearing a face mask, pretending to point a gun at someone on the floor, saying.”Hey you, get on the floor. Get on the floor now. Don’t you move, don’t you move, I’m telling you, I will kill you.”
A third video showed him displaying the guns he purchased, singing,”We have a local silencer and the bullets are 9mm. To raise to the highest levels is a must for every crusader. This is 9mm, thank God. Will be used against God’s enemies. And this 22. Of course 22 of a hundredth of inches, not millimeter. I ask God the almighty to enable me and give me a duty that God will be happy with, and God is able to do that.”
Additionally, the FBI said he expressed admiration for 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and spoke of his desire to carry out a similar mass casualty shooting.
During a conversation with a confidential informant, the FBI quoted Al-Azhari as saying “that’s how I want to die, to be honest. I don’t want to take four or five, no. I want to take at least 50, you know, like brother Omar Mateen in Orlando did. He took 49 with him.”
FBI agents also interviewed some of his coworkers at Home Depot in Tampa. One supervisor said Al-Azhari “often spoke of Islam at work and conveyed views that were passionate and aggressive. In reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, Al-Azhari said he believed that Americans got what they deserved that day.”
Another coworker said Al-Azhari kept a 9 mm handgun in the center console of his car.
After obtaining a court-approved order to review the data on his iPhone6s, the FBI said they found evidence that Al-Azhari visited a messaging application chat room that posted articles and videos on how to make a bomb, phosphate, hypochlorite sodium chlorine, hypochlorite sodium chlorox, trinitrotoluene and other explosive materials. He also downloaded PDFs titled “How to make a bomb at home,” “Mujahid Guide in Forensic Research” and “4 Easy Ways to Make a Suicide Belt.” He also linked to a new article about how to use IEDs in warfare, types of IEDs and booby trapping.
Al-Azhari, who has a criminal history that includes prior terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia, came under FBI surveillance in May 2019 when he began making statements about his support of ISIS and his desire to take revenge on the United States for the imprisonment of Muslims, including ISIS fighters.
FBI agents arrested Al-Azhari May 24 after he took possession of weapons they said he planned to use a mass shooting including an AK-47-style rifle as well as the Glock pistol and silencer.
The U.S. Postal Service also alerted agents that he had purchased weapons parts on eBay and had them mailed to his address in Tampa.
Records from eBay Inc. show that on April 20 Al-Azhari bought a PF940v2 polymer pistol frame and jig kit from an eBay user in Texas for $375. He also tried to purchase a Glock 19 from an agent posing as an eBay seller.
Before concluding the conversation, the FBI said Al-Azhari asked the pretend eBay seller, “Hey bro, you know, do you also have like a baby AK or something like that?”
Records also showed that Al-Azhari purchased a number of military tactical items from the online shopping site, Wish, including a camera drone, a bullet-proof military tactical vest, a military high-powered laser pointer and a fuel trap solvent filter, a device designed to be attached to the muzzle of a firearm barrel.
Al-Azhari was convicted in Saudi Arabia in 2015 for terror-related crimes, including attempting to join a terrorist group. The FBI said he was planning to travel to Syria to participate in a jihad and join a terrorist group fighting the Syrian government. He was imprisoned for possession of extremist propaganda, holding extremist views and attempting to join the terrorist organization, Jaysh al Case.
Al-Azhari was accused of conspiring with two other people, including his father, to commit those crimes.
He served three years in prison in Saudi Arabia and then “he was removed” to the United States around December 2018, according to the FBI.
He lived in California with his grandmother and then moved to Tampa in June 2019.
“We are grateful for the quick work of our partners at the FBI to apprehend Al-Azhari before he could carry out his attack,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “This case demonstrates the department’s commitment to stand vigilant against the threat of terrorism and violent extremism in all its forms.”
“Their coordination and cooperation in this matter allowed us to interrupt a serious threat, without harm to anyone,” Maria Chapa Lopez, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
“From Mr. Al-Azhari’s attempt to acquire firearms through unlawful channels to his desire to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, it was clear Mr. Al-Azhari’s intention was to carry out an act of violence,” said Assistant Director Jill Sanborn of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “The FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country will continue to use all of their legal authorities to prevent a potential act of terrorism in the United States, and elsewhere.”
Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Tampa Division Michael F. McPherson led the investigation with the assistance of Homeland Security Investigations, the Tampa Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, the St. Petersburg Police Department, the Clearwater Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“The primary mission of the FBI is to protect the American public from a terrorist attack,” McPherson said. “Today’s announcement of the arrest of Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azahari is proof we are committed to that pledge. I commend the 18 federal, state and local member agencies who comprise FBI Tampa’s Joint Terrorism Task Force for working day and night to prevent the loss of life in the Tampa Bay community. We were also fortunate to gain the cooperation of multiple citizens who willingly and bravely provided their assistance during this investigation. This strong bond between law enforcement and the public allowed us to disrupt this threat.”
The case will be prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Scruggs with assistance from trial attorney Ranganath Mathripragada of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section.