Two men were arrested Wednesday in New York as they prepared to join Islamic State militants in Syria, while a third man was arrested in Florida for helping fund their efforts, after they boasted of their plans on the Internet, federal investigators said.
The three, all immigrants from Central Asia who live in Brooklyn, N.Y., plotted to launch attacks in this country if they were prevented from joining the extremist group, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.
One of the men repeatedly offered to assassinate President Obama if ordered to do so by Islamic State, according to the complaint.
Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, a citizen of Kazakhstan, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Istanbul, Turkey, and then travel to Syria, the FBI said.
In conversations secretly recorded by the FBI, Saidakhmetov said he might try to force the flight to divert "so that the Islamic State would gain a plane," the complaint said.
He also said that if he failed to reach Syria, he was prepared to join the military to kill U.S. soldiers; plant a bomb on Coney Island, the famed beachfront entertainment area in Brooklyn; or shoot FBI agents and New York police, the complaint said.
"We will go and purchase one handgun … then go and shoot one police officer," he said in one wiretapped call, according to the complaint. "Boom. ... Then we will take his gun, bullets and a bulletproof vest … then we will do the same with a couple of others. Then we will go to the FBI headquarters, kill the FBI people."
Also arrested was Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, a citizen of Uzbekistan. Authorities said he had purchased a ticket to Istanbul and planned to follow Saidakhmetov to Syria next month.
The third suspect, Abror Habibov, 30, also an Uzbek citizen, gave the two money to help them fly to Turkey to join Islamic State, the complaint alleges. Habibov, who owns a chain of kiosks in malls in several states, was arrested in Jacksonville, Fla.
About 20,000 foreign fighters have joined Islamic State and other Sunni Muslim militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including several thousand Europeans and about 100 Americans, according to U.S. estimates. About a dozen Americans are believed to be fighting on behalf of Islamic State.
According to the complaint, U.S. investigators began tracking the men in August after Juraboev posted a note on a now-closed Uzbek language website that sought recruits for Islamic State, offering to shoot Obama if the extremist group ordered him to do so.
"That will strike fear in the hearts of infidels," the note states, according to the complaint. Juraboev repeated his pledge to "execute Obama" in an email later that month to another Islamic State website, the complaint said. Special FBI Agent Ryan Singer wrote in the criminal complaint that agents first interviewed Juraboev in August and he openly discussed plans not only to join Islamic State but to kill Obama.
The investigation spread to Saidakhmetov, and wiretaps were approved to pick up the two men's conversations. The FBI also placed a paid confidential informant inside the group, who met and befriended Juraboev at a mosque.
At one point Saidakhmetov offered to join the U.S. military so he could pass information to Islamic State "to help in their attacks," according to the complaint. Barring that, he said, he "could always open fire on American soldiers and kill as many of them as possible," the complaint said.
The informant recorded conversations with both men. During those conversations, Saidakhmetov became increasingly frustrated with his inability to fight alongside Islamic State, and said his mother had taken his passport away.
"I will just go and buy a machine gun, AK-47, go out and shoot all police," Saidakhmetov said, according to the complaint.
Saidakhmetov was overjoyed when his travel documents were cleared by the Homeland Security Department last week, the complaint said. He opened the package and said "his soul was already on its way to paradise and made the sound of a horn."
The three were each charged with attempting to provide and conspiracy to provide material support to Islamic State. If convicted, each faces up to 15 years in prison.
All three made initial appearances in court but did not enter pleas in the case.
At a Brooklyn news conference Wednesday, New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the case highlighted Islamic State's reach on social media and the group's ability to motivate sympathizers in the U.S. to act.
"'If you can't get a gun, if you can't make a bomb, get a knife,'" he said. "This is real. This is the concern about the lone wolf, inspired to act without going to the Middle East."
Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and Obama's nominee to replace Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general, is overseeing the case. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on her nomination. She said the case showed U.S. efforts to stop people from joining Islamic State and to stop people influenced by the group from using violence in this country.
"The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies," Lynch said in a statement. "Anyone who threatens our citizens and our allies, here or abroad, will face the full force of American justice."