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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

American admits to receiving ISIL money to carry out attack on US soil

Mohamed Elshinawy pleaded guilty to four terrorism related counts in Baltimore federal court on Tuesday

Prosecutors say the case was crucial in uncovering the way ISIL used a British financial company to move money around the world using eBay and PayPal. Jeff Chiu / AP
Prosecutors say the case was crucial in uncovering the way ISIL used a British financial company to move money around the world using eBay and PayPal. Jeff Chiu / AP

A 32-year-old American has admitted receiving thousands of dollars from ISIL to plan and carry out an attack on US soil.

Mohamed Elshinawy pleaded guilty to four terrorism related counts in Baltimore federal court on Tuesday.

Prosecutors say the case was crucial in uncovering the way ISIL used a British financial company to move money around the world using eBay and PayPal. And for the first time it shows how ISIL supporters sent cash to the US for an attack on American soil.

Although he did not carry out an attack, prosecutors said they had evidence Elshinawy pledged allegiance to ISIL and used social media to discuss his plans with a childhood friend. He also told him he wanted to travel to Syria to live with his wife in territory under the control of the extremists.

He faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three most serious offences, including conspiring to provide material support to ISIL.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s programme on extremism, said the case was unlike previous ISIL prosecutions in the US.

“There are no other cases like it that we see in the public realm,” he said.

“Traditionally American ISIS supporters send money overseas. What it looks like here is ISIS supporters in Egypt and the UK sending money to Mohamed Elshinawy with the express aim of conducting attacks here.”

Elshinawy, an American citizen of Egyptian descent, was arrested in December 2015 at a time of heightened fear of a terrorist attack in the US, days after a husband and wife shot dead 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

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Investigators were led to him after he received a Western Union wire transfer of US$1,000 (Dh3,670) sent by an ISIL operative in Egypt, according to an FBI affidavit.

Court documents show how the FBI pored over his financial transactions and found payments totalling $8,700 sent by people allegedly linked with ISIL.

At first Elshinawy said the money had been sent by his mother, then that it was to buy an iPhone for a friend. Eventually he admitted that his childhood friend had contacted him to put him in touch with an unnamed ISIL member.

To cover his tracks, he pretended to sell printers on eBay and received the money via PayPal from a British company named in the affidavit as Ibacstel Electronics.

He said he was instructed to use the proceeds for “operational purposes” which he understood to mean “causing destruction or conducting a terrorist attack in the US”.

But he insisted he had no such intention and was instead keeping the money for himself.

“Rather he claimed he saw an opportunity to make money and take it from ‘thieves’ and felt that the FBI should reward him for what he had done,” reads the FBI affidavit.

At the weekend it emerged that the man behind the money transfer scheme was Siful Sujan, a mid-ranking ISIL figure who led the group’s hacking campaign and efforts to defeat surveillance by Western spy agencies.

He is believed to have left the UK — where he ran his business in Cardiff — for Syria some time in 2014. He was killed in a drone strike in December 2015 at about the same time Elshinawy was arrested.

A spokesman for eBay said the company has “zero tolerance for criminal activity on our marketplace and we worked with law enforcement to bring this individual to justice.”

Court documents laid out the communications between Elshinawy, who grew up in Egypt before arriving in the US, and his childhood friend who had been charged with terrorism offences.

Investigators said their messages by email and social media included discussing their allegiance to Isis, the importance of dying a martyr, references to plans for a terrorist attack and how to build an explosive device.

“Elshinawy also told his childhood friend that he was indebted to him for showing him the way to martyrdom, and that his childhood friend should continue to fight,” reads the criminal complaint.

Elshinawy is due to be sentenced in November.

At the time of his arrest, prosecutors said they had made a major breakthrough in unravelling financial networks linked to Isis.

“This case demonstrates how terrorists exploit modern technology to inculcate sympathisers and build hidden networks, but federal agents and prosecutors are working tirelessly and using every available lawful tool to disrupt their evil schemes,” said Rod Rosenstein, the then US attorney prosecuting the case.