St. Petersburg man pleads guilty to supporting Islamic extremist group
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man accused in 2020 of plotting terror attacks in the U.S. and acquiring an arsenal of weapons has pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State extremist group.
Mohammed Al-Azhari, a 25-year-old U.S. citizen, also agreed Thursday to accept an 18-year prison sentence during the plea hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli in Tampa federal court. A formal sentencing date has not been set.
Al-Azhari admitted in court papers that he scouted potential terrorism targets in the Tampa Bay area, including beaches and parks. He also sught to acquire multiple weapons and pledged an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State. The FBI recorded many conversations between Al-Azhari and confidential or undercover sources in which he discussed avenging imprisoned Islamic State fighters and using violence to oppose U.S. military actions in the Middle East.
An FBI affidavit says Al-Azhari was recorded as expressing admiration for Omar Mateen, the deceased shooter at the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016, and even drove there to scope out the location. In a conversation with a confidential informant, the FBI says, Al-Azhari said, “That’s how I want to die, to be honest.”
The informant then asked how many people Al-Azhari wanted to kill.
“I don’t want to take four or five, no. I want to take at least 50,” Al-Azhari replied on the recording, according to the affidavit. “You know like, brother Omar Mateen in Orlando did. He took 49 with him.”
The confidential FBI informant eventually supplied Al-Azhari with a Glock handgun and a silencer as he had requested. He was arrested in May 2020 after taking possession of the weapons. Investigators also seized three firearms, a crossbow, dozens of rounds of ammunition, a stun gun and at least six knives belonging to Al-Azhari. He also sought to buy a fully automatic AK-47-style weapon but was unsuccessful.
According to the affidavit, Al-Azhari conducted reconnaissance on several potential Tampa Bay targets, including beaches, parks and even the Tampa FBI field office. He also allegedly rehearsed what he would say when carrying out an attack, some of which was intercepted by electronic surveillance.
“Know America. Today is your emergency. Today we kill from you guys like you killed from us,” he is overheard saying, according to the affidavit. “This is a revenge for Muslims.”
Alazhari is originally from California but spent much of his life overseas and eventually embraced extremist Islamic ideology, according to the FBI. He was imprisoned for three years in Saudi Arabia after a 2015 conviction involving his advocacy for Jaysh al-Islam, an armed extremist group fighting in the Syrian conflict.
In 2018, after serving that sentence, he was deported to the U.S., where the FBI immediately opened a terrorism support investigation.
One reason the case has taken so long to resolve is that Al-Azhari was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in January 2022. After treatment at a federal prison medical center in Butner, North Carolina, a judge decided in November that Al-Azhari’s competence had been restored.
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