As a Kansas City man learned, joining the global jihad against godless imperialism is harder than you’d think.
Especially when the al-Qaeda leaders you’re dealing with are just as adept at conning their own recruits as they are at instigating mass murder.
The FBI’s recent disclosure that a Kansas City man’s terror cell once had cased the New York Stock Exchange was meant to demonstrate that the government’s electronic surveillance programs have disrupted real threats to the homeland.
But the case’s hundreds of pages of court records in Kansas City and New York also show that federal investigators broke up a long-running fraud scheme in which an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen was less interested in stoking his recruits’ passion for holy war than exploiting their bank accounts for his own gain.
In a recent letter to a New York federal judge, the lawyer representing cell member Sabirhan Hasanoff acknowledged that his client once had dreamed of jihad glory, only to get rolled by a Yemeni bunco terrorist.
“The defendants never had any authentic access to terrorism networks or Islamic extremists, and were victims of a rudimentary fraud,” the lawyer wrote.
Fraud or not, the defendants had contributed money, time and material to men involved in global terrorism, government lawyers responded in their own letter to the judge.
“While Hasanoff could not control how the recipients of his support would utilize those materials, he certainly intended for those materials to be used to support al-Qaeda’s goals and to facilitate his pathway to fight on behalf of al-Qaeda,” prosecutors wrote.
Not typical terrorists
Forget the regimented terrorists you see on “24” or “Homeland.” Members of this cell preferred consensus to rigid military discipline. And they were squeamish about suicide missions.
All naturalized American citizens, they were:
• Khalid Ouazzani, a Kansas City used auto parts salesman who had gone broke investing in local real estate.
• Wesam El-Hanafi, a Brooklyn information technology security specialist who had worked at Lehman Brothers investment bank before taking his family to Dubai about 2005.
• Sabirhan Hasanoff, a Brooklyn accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers who also relocated to Dubai, in 2007.
All are married and all have children.
Three years after prosecutors filed terrorism charges against all three, how the men got together remains unclear, though paperwork in Ouazzani’s case noted that he has family in New York.
Prosecutors have alleged that in 2003, about the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, all three aspired to “support violent extremist Islamic causes.”
Hasanoff admitted recently in court records to being radicalized by the sermons of New Mexico-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who died two years ago in an American drone strike in Yemen. Hasanoff said he needed to reconnect with his Muslim faith and reconcile that with the world around him.
“As best I can explain it, a sense of guilt at living a comfortable life, and not someone acting on my beliefs and standing up for fellow Muslims, led me, step by step, to start making plans to go and fight for my faith and my community,” Hasanoff wrote in a letter to his judge.
A smothering sense of isolation and direction by a charismatic leader can propel even successful people toward radical action, said Michael Tabman, an author and former FBI agent.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Tabman said. “The frustration builds up. They say, ‘I’m tired of being alone and I’m tired of being meaningless.’”
In mid-2007, according to court records, El-Hanafi connected with two experienced terrorists in Yemen. One of the men, referred to in court records only as “Suffian,” recently had left prison and eagerly wanted to resume his work for al-Qaeda.
The other, referred to only as “The Doctor,” was an experienced jihadi oozing with terrorism street cred, at least in the minds of three American novices. The Doctor claimed to have fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and had pledged his support in the 1990s to an organization that later merged with al-Qaeda.
He also ran an automobile business in Yemen.
To prove they were serious about the cause, the three Americans began sending $300 a month to their new friends in Yemen. Ouazzani also offered a generous $6,500 commitment to the cause, which he couldn’t afford, probably because of his real estate losses in Kansas City.
Hasanoff covered the contribution for Ouazzani, then pestered him with emails demanding repayment.
“It’s about time you put your akhirah (afterlife) before your dunya (current life),” Hasanoff wrote in an Oct. 11, 2007, email. “You have my wiring instructions. Let me know once you’ve sent so I’ll check my bank.”
As the months progressed, the three also sent watches, cold-weather gear, Garmin GPS units and a remote-control car to their terrorist leaders.
Later, after being arrested by Yemeni authorities, Suffian and The Doctor admitted to the FBI that the Americans believed that the money and equipment were being set aside for their military training, after which they would be sent to Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Instead, The Doctor admitted that he and Suffian divided the material loot between them, gave some of the money to the families of Islamic martyrs and bought a couple of automobiles.
In his FBI interview, Suffian said The Doctor was pretty clear about his intentions, particularly for a $45,000 contribution from the three Americans that they expected in late 2008.
“(The Doctor’s) plan was to take the Americans’ money,” Suffian is quoted as saying in one FBI interview. “For example, (The Doctor) was planning on using the $45,000 to open an appliance store.”
Impatient for action, the Americans repeatedly pressed The Doctor and Suffian as to when they would travel for jihad. But the Yemenis urged patience, saying that Ouazzani, El-Hanafi and Hasanoff were better suited for an operation in the United States than fighting in Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan.
But if not everyone got an AK-47, the lines for suicide vests were shorter, the men learned.
One of Suffian’s terror contacts said that anyone who consented to a “martyrdom” — or suicide — operation would be received “right away.”
Suffian emailed El-Hanafi in Dubai, who polled Hasanoff and Ouazzani on the offer.
No takers, according to court records.
“The Americans advised (Suffian) that they did not want to do a martyrdom operation, but still wanted to travel for jihad,” the FBI reported.
When the Americans asked about when they would get in the fight, The Doctor had a practiced and enigmatic response.
“The path to jihad,” he said many times, “was not clear.”
The emotional echo chamber of life in a street gang or a terrorist cell takes its toll on rational thought, said corporate consultant Jeff Lanza, a former FBI agent.
“Who in their right mind is going to send money to a far-off land?” Lanza said. “A terrorist group is not much different from any other group. You’ll have people who are honest and people who will rip you off.”
Like a student pasting Wikipedia entries into a term paper, Hasanoff completely dogged his August 2008 assignment to study the New York Stock Exchange for a possible bombing attack.
In a later statement, which prosecutors derided as “self-serving,” Hasanoff said he pulled together a short report with the kind of public information easily available from Google Earth, tourist maps and brochures. Hasanoff said he wanted to fight abroad and not contribute to an attack on U.S. soil.
“I was never going to provide anything useful and, had I been pressed for more, would have said no,” Hasanoff wrote in a letter to his judge.
His handlers in Yemen weren’t pleased. The Doctor told agents that he tore up the report, “threw it in the street” and never showed it to anyone. It added nothing to his understanding of the stock exchange, he said.
Suffian told FBI agents that Hasanoff’s report was “silly” but said The Doctor never had a real plan to bomb the stock exchange. Ouazzani, El-Hanafi and Hasanoff were pretty useless, other than providing a meal ticket for The Doctor, Suffian said.
“The three Americans had no experience in security or movement,” Suffian told the agents.
Just when the National Security Agency first noticed emails flying between Kansas City, New York, Dubai and Internet cafes in Yemen is not clear from court records.
But agents eventually corralled Ouazzani, who agreed to cooperate and flesh out the electronic record. By early March 2009, Suffian and The Doctor were sitting in a Yemeni jail and speaking with U.S. investigators. About the same time, the three Americans chatted nervously on Google Mail, wondering if The Doctor had been “hospitalized,” which U.S. investigators took to mean “arrested.”
All three Americans probably will be sentenced this summer, Ouazzani in Kansas City and El-Hanafi and Hasanoff in New York. Each faces decades of possible prison time.
Prosecutors have said in court filings that, however feckless, the men took concrete and material steps to join a terrorist group and harm U.S. interests.
But at least in their public statements, the men are remorseful.
Robin Fowler, Ouazzani’s attorney, said his client deeply regrets his conduct and has taken “steps to atone, to the extent he can.” Fowler also argued that Ouazzani had nothing to do with the stock exchange plot.
Hasanoff, in his letter to the judge, accepted responsibility for his conduct and pleaded for mercy.
“I realize all too clearly how terribly wrong I was,” he said. “You should also know, respectfully, that I reject violence and any interpretation of Islam that could condone or approve of violent or terrorist acts.”
El-Hanafi said in his letter to the judge that he feels great shame for adopting an ideology “that slowly took away my sense of reason and replaced it with blind following.” And El-Hanafi wrote that he still was struggling with his ability to recover from the damage he’d done to his life and career.
“I’m anticipating that many employers will be hesitant to hire someone with a terrorism conviction in their (information technology) security department,” he wrote.