Khalil Abu-Rayyan, 21, hasn’t been charged with terrorism-related crimes but faces federal charges of illegally having a firearm while using a controlled substance.
But a complaint unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court reveals the FBI has been investigating him since May “regarding increasingly violent threats he has made to others about committing acts of terror and martyrdom — including brutal acts against police officers, churchgoers and others — on behalf of the foreign terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.”
Besides allegedly using Twitter to express support for the terror group — often referred to as ISIS or ISIL — Abu-Rayyan reportedly told an undercover FBI employee about a plot to target a church.
“I tried to shoot up a church one day,” Abu-Rayyan is quoted as saying in court records. “I don’t know the name of it, but it’s close to my job. It’s one of the biggest ones in Detroit. Ya, I had it planned out. I bought a bunch of bullets. I practiced a lot with it. I practiced reloading and unloading. But my dad searched my car one day, and he found everything. He found the gun and the bullets and a mask I was going to wear.”
Investigators didn’t name the church Abu-Rayyan allegedly eyed, but claim the property covers about two blocks less than half a mile from his work and can accommodate up to 6,000 members. He allegedly purchased a gun and told an undercover FBI employee that attacking a church would be “easy.”
“A lot of people go there. Plus people are not allowed to carry guns in church,” the affidavit quotes him as saying. “Plus it would make the news. Everybody would’ve heard. Honestly I regret not doing it. (If I) can’t go do jihad at the Middle East, I would do my jihad over here.”
Abu-Rayyan appeared in federal court Thursday and was detained pending a hearing on Monday, said Gina Balaya, public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.
Court records show he was assigned a federal defender, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night. Messages left for those listed as his relatives were not returned.
“If the allegations are true, then they’re extremely troublesome,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter.
He said the group is urging caution “and encouraging the broader community to also reserve judgment regarding this matter.”
The court document claims Abu-Rayyan used Twitter for “retweeting, liking and commenting” on IS propaganda since late 2014. According to the affidavit, the posts included “video of a Jordanian fighter pilot being burned alive, men being thrown from a high rise building to execute them, the beheading of Christians in Egypt and news of ISIL victories.”
In December, he communicated with an undercover FBI employee through social media; during conversations over several weeks, “Abu-Rayyan consistently expressed support for ISIL and repeatedly expressed his desire to commit a martyrdom operation,” the document read. He also said he had an AK-47 with a 40-round magazine like other extremist fighters.
The affidavit says Abu-Rayyan told the undercover FBI employee a firearm he bought in October wasn’t suitable “because it only held six shots and he would have to keep reloading.”
The next month, he “tweeted photos of himself firing an AK-47 type and AR-15 type rifles at a local firing range”; one was captioned “Sahwat hunting,” which authorities said “is a term for Iraqis who oppose ISIL.”
Federal officials said Abu-Rayyan bought a .22 caliber revolver in October from a Dearborn Heights sporting goods store but lacked a concealed pistol license. On Oct. 7, Detroit police pulled him over for speeding; inside the 2001 Buick Century, officers found marijuana. Arrested for toting the drug and carrying a concealed weapon, Abu-Rayyan was later released on bond.
On Nov. 15, the same day the pending case denied him the chance to buy another pistol, Abu-Rayyan rented a firearm at the firing range pictured on Twitter later that month, according to the affidavit.
Wayne County prosecutors charged him for the gun and marijuana; he pleaded guilty to the drug possession Jan. 15 and was scheduled for trial Feb. 16 on the weapon charge, authorities said.
Soon after he pleaded guilty, Abu-Rayyan told the undercover person he “wanted to kill the officer who arrested him.” Since the officer’s heart attack delayed a trial, Abu-Rayyan “wanted to do a martyrdom operation at the hospital, killing the police officer in the process,” according to court documents. The next day, he told the undercover FBI employee about carrying a “large knife or sword in his car” in case of a fight and said “it is my dream to behead someone,” documents allege.
The case coincides with Muslims in Michigan and nationwide facing tensions amid fears about rising extremism in the wake of the recent Paris and California attacks.
“We advise people not to jump to conclusions about what happened and wait for all of the facts to come in,” said Muzammil Ahmed, board chairman for the Michigan Muslim Community Council. “Our thoughts are with our Christian friends and congregation that were threatened. We think that isolated acts like this, if they are indeed true, are an anomaly in this area.”
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved GOP legislation that erected fresh hurdles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the United States. Gov. Rick Snyder suspended efforts to open Michigan to Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war, joining other governors in asking the federal government to examine and toughen security screenings of refugee applicants.
Soon after the shootings in San Bernardino, California, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. — a call that drew rebukes from many, yet found support among others.
CAIR’s national chapter noted that in his visit to a Baltimore-area mosque this week, President Barack Obama rejected “inexcusable political rhetoric” targeting Muslims.