An Edgewood man pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and received thousands of dollars from overseas that he believed was funding from the terror group to carry out an attack, federal prosecutors said Monday.
Mohamed Elshinawy, 30, was arrested on charges of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and other offenses, federal prosecutors said. He was scheduled to have an initial court hearing Monday afternoon.
"When confronted by the FBI, he lied in order to conceal his support for ISIL and the steps he took to provide material support to the deadly foreign terrorist organization," Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin said in a statement.
"He will now be held accountable for these crimes."
The criminal complaint filed against Elshinawy lays out extensive communications the FBI says he had with contacts overseas and alleges he received at least $8,700 he believed was support for terrorism. Federal authorities have brought charges against dozens of people they say are ISIL supporters, but terrorism analysts said the allegation that Elshinawy received funding from the group is new.
Michael Greenberger, the director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, said the charges are another example of ISIL's reach from its bases in the Middle East and their hope to cause mayhem in the United States.
"It appears they have enough money to be able to set out a lot of lures, hoping that one lure will catch somebody who's willing to engage in dangerous activity," Greenberger said.
A couple who investigators believe were inspired by ISIL killed 14 people in a shooting rampage this month at a government facility in San Bernardino, Calif. The group, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed scores in Paris, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
Elshinawy is the first person to charged by federal prosecutors in Maryland for his alleged ties to the group. He was arrested on Friday, prosecutors said.
No one answered the door Monday afternoon at his address, a townhouse in the 300 block of McCann St. in a neighborhood called Harford Commons, which has several blocks of identical, green-and-white one-story homes. A neighbor said she had seen FBI agents in the area but assumed it was to do with drug dealing rather than a terrorism case.
Agents first interviewed Elshinawy in July, after learning about a suspicious $1000 wire transfer he received from Egypt, according to the criminal complaint.
Elshinawy originally said that the money was from his mother before changing his story and admitting that he had been in contact with a childhood friend who had been arrested in Egypt on terror charges, an FBI agent wrote in the complaint. The friend had fled to Syria but Elshinawy said the friend put him in touch with an ISIL operative in Egypt who sent he money, the FBI says.
Elshinawy said the operative did not give him any guidance on how to carry out an attack but cited the May shooting at Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas as an example, according to the FBI.
Elshinawy said he was actually conning the ISIL operative — including concocting a plot to make it look as though he sold printers on eBay to provide cover for Paypal transfers — and did not plan to do anything.
"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," the agent wrote.
As they probed further, the investigators wrote that they concluded that wasn't true and that Elshinawy had pledged allegiance to ISIL on social media, had discussed making an explosive device and traveling to live in ISIL controlled territory, and had concealed how much money he had actually received.
It's not clear from the court document what connection the Egyptian contact — who is not identified in the court papers — had with ISIL. Seamus Hughes, who studies ISIL at George Washington University, said the lack of a clear plot suggests the person was not a core member of the terrorist group.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said the case shows how terrorists exploit technology to find recruits and attempt to communicate in secret.
"Federal agents and prosecutors are working tirelessly and using every available lawful tool to disrupt their evil schemes," he said.
While the case shows some similarities with others where authorities allege people have been radicalized by reading online propaganda, Hughes said the allegations also show how personal connections — like the childhood friend — can lead someone down a path to extremism.
"Real world relationships matter," said Hughes, a former counterterrorism official. "You're more likely to be engaged in this ideology if your friends, or your brother, or your sister are also interested."
The FBI said that after he was interviewed in July, Elshinawy took steps to make it look like he cut off communication with his childhood friend. But as they probed his electronic communications, investigators said they traced a web of email accounts, cell phone numbers and social media platforms that Elshinawy had used to discuss terrorism.
Writing in Arabic, Elshinawy told the friend on Feb. 17 that he had pledged allegiance to ISIL, the FBI said, and in April told him he had many targets in mind.
"Elshinawy also told his childhood friend that he was indebted to him for showing him the way to martyrdom, and that the childhood friend should continue to fight," the FBI agent wrote.