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DOJ: Man plotted attack in Tampa Bay area on behalf of ISIS

Posted at 5:17 PM, May 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-28 17:26:47-04

TAMPA, Fla. -- A Tampa man is facing federal charges after investigators say he plotted a possible attack and tried to give "material support" or resources to ISIS.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), 23-year-old Muhammad Momtaz Al-Azhari was an ISIS supporter who was plotting an attack on behalf of the terrorist organization. Al-Azhari had previously acquired a Glock pistol and a silencer and had "expressed admiration for Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen" and was looking to "carry out a similar mass casualty shooting," according to DOJ.

According to court documents, Al-Azhari's criminal record includes previous terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia. He was accused of planning to travel to Syria to participate in jihad and join terrorist groups fighting the Syrian government. He served three years in Saudi Arabia and was removed to the United States in 2018.

Investigators said he tried to purchase firearms and other material online. They said his coworkers at Home Depot expressed concerns about statements Al-Azhari made. Records show he was arrested May 1 for carrying a concealed firearm. A probable cause affidavit states he was the subject of an intelligence bulletin, after making threats to harm fellow employees at the store. Officers found him with a revolver in his pocket, but he told investigators he had no ill will toward the business or others.

According to court documents, communications involving Al-Azhari dating back to last May expressed interest in carrying out terrorism, ISIS, firearms, shootings, explosives, among other items. He is accused of making a video mimicking a shooting and practicing what he would say.

Al-Azhari had researched and looked into potential targets in the Tampa Bay area, including Honeymoon island, DOJ said. The criminal complaint also states his web and Google Maps history revealed searches for "busy beaches," "Bayshore Blvd," "Belleair Beach," and "Clearwater Beach," as well as "FBI," and "central intelligence." He had also rehearsed parts of an attack and the statements he would make during an attack, according to DOJ.

"Based on my training and experience, as well as my familiarity with this investigation, I believe that Al-Azhari’s searching for, and travel to, these locations is indicative of him scouting targets for a potential mass shooting attack," stated the criminal complaint against him.

According to court documents, Al-Azhari told a confidential informant he wanted to join ISIS and talked about wanting to kill dozens.

FBI agents arrested Al-Azhari on Sunday, May 24, after he was carrying weapons he was going to use in a future attack, according to a press release from DOJ.

Al-Azhari is charged with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, DOJ said. If convicted, Al-Azhari faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.

Agents with the FBI in Tampa reassure citizens that because the arrest has been made, there is no longer a threat.

“The one thing I want people to know is that A. they are safe, and B. the Joint Terrorism Task Force here at the FBI, with our partners, we’re here to protect them, and that’s our mission, what we’re here to do. We work 24 hours a day 365 days a year to make sure that they’re safe, and to go about their life so that we can continue to do our job here," said Michael McPherson, Special Agent in Charge of the Tampa FBI Field Office.

McPherson also said threats of violence come in every day, but they work constantly to investigate them. Still, they urge the public, that if something seems out of the ordinary, say something.

“You know your community, you know what’s right. I can’t tell you what’s not right around you, but in your own little world where you travel, around your house, around your work, around your community, if you see something strange, you’re not too sure, just put the call into us,” said McPherson.

Retired FBI agent Richard Worms agrees that citizens have no need to worry.

"No threat should be taken lightly but I think the general citizens in our communities shouldn’t overly worry about this. They shouldn’t stress on a daily basis. I think they can definitely find comfort that our partners in law enforcement are always working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to keep them safe," said Worms.

He's not involved in the case, but has extensive experience in counter-terrorism investigations, previously supervising a terrorism task force.

"It does not shock someone with my background, only because I’ve seen enough cases in my time that these individuals are out there. There’s lots of people across the world and even in our own country, who would like to undermine everything that we stand for? It doesn’t shock me that this case sort of pops up every once in a while. I’m comforted that it doesn’t happen more frequently," he said.

He advised people follow the saying, "see something, say something," speaking up when they feel something is uncomfortable or not right.

"The primary mission of the FBI is to protect the American public from a terrorist attack. 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 (JTTF) for working day and night to prevent hte loss of life in the Tampa Bay community. We were also fortunate to gain the cooperation of multiple citiens 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." stated Special Agent in Charge of FBI Tampa, Michael McPherson, in a statement on social media.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister released the following statement:

“We are working every day to protect our communities at all costs. It’s disturbing to think of the actions Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azahari may have been able to carry out had it not been for our coordinated efforts.

I commend our federal, state and local partners in law enforcement whose hard work resulted in this arrest and charge. By working together, we are sending a strong message that terrorism of any kind will not be tolerated in Hillsborough County or our great country as a whole.”

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office told ABC Action News reporter Haley Bull that Al-Azhair is in its custody but the Tampa-based suspect will face federal charges.

The U.S. Department of Justice reminds Al-Azhari is innocent until proven guilty. Samuel Landes, the attorney representing Al-Azhari issued this statement:

"The government’s charges in this case unfairly attempt to portray this United States citizen as a terrorist. The allegations misunderstand both the law and the evidence. I’m thankful that in this country everyone enjoys a presumption of innocence, and I look forward to Mr. Al-Azhari’s day in court before a jury of his peers."

So far, no court hearings have been set.