Three men were arrested Wednesday on charges of plotting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group and wage war against the U.S., and federal officials said one of them spoke of attacking President Barack Obama or planting a bomb on Coney Island.
Akhror Saidakhmetov was arrested at Kennedy Airport, where he was attempting to board a flight to Istanbul, authorities said. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev had a ticket to travel to Istanbul next month and was arrested in Brooklyn, federal prosecutors said. Abror Habibov, 30, accused of helping fund Saidakhmetov's efforts, was arrested in Florida.
They are charged with attempt and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization. If convicted, each faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Habibov appeared in federal court in Jacksonville, Florida, and was appointed a public defender. The other two men were in custody, and it was not clear if they had attorneys who could comment on the charges. They were scheduled to appear in federal court in Brooklyn later Wednesday.
Saidakhmetov is a Brooklyn resident and citizen of Kazakhstan. Juraboev and Habibov are residents of Brooklyn and citizens of Uzbekistan.
"The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies," said state U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, who is Obama's choice to be U.S. attorney general.
Federal prosecutors say Juraboev, 24, first came to the attention of law enforcement in August, when he posted on an Uzbek-language website that propagates the Islamic State ideology.
"Greetings! We too want to pledge our allegiance and commit ourselves while not present there," he wrote, according to federal authorities. "Is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here?"
"What I'm saying is, to shoot Obama and then get shot ourselves, will it do? That will strike fear in the hearts of infidels."
Officials said they believed he planned to travel from Turkey to Syria to join the terror group. Prosecutors say Saidakhmetov, 19, also threatened an attack in the U.S. if he was unable to join the Islamic State. Juraboev's plans included attacks against Obama or planting a bomb on Coney Island, officials said.
Federal officials say Juraboev identified Saidakhmetov as a friend and co-worker with a shared ideology. The two exchanged messages on how to get overseas, and Saidakhmetov and an informant watched videos of Islamic State training camps in Syria, according to court papers.
Saidakhmetov told the informant in September that he wanted to travel to Syria for jihad, or holy war, but that his mother had concerns about that and confiscated his passport so he couldn't travel, the complaint said. He said he would lie and tell her he planned to go to Uzbekistan to visit relatives in hopes of getting his passport back. When he called to ask for it, she hung up the phone.
Habibov operates kiosks that repair phones and sell kitchenware in malls in Jacksonville, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and Philadelphia. He employed Saidakhmetov last fall and winter and said he would help fund his travel, though he did not mention a specific sum of money, prosecutors said. The two were spotted in Brooklyn purchasing a ticket for Saidakhmetov to travel to Turkey, officials said.
The Islamic State group largely consists of Sunni militants from Iraq and Syria but has also drawn fighters from across the Muslim world and Europe.
The FBI has for the last year expressed concern about the flow of Western fighters to Syria. Federal officials have repeatedly said they're concerned about those Americans looking to join the Islamic State group in Syria as well as the prospect that someone could train alongside militants there and return to the U.S. with plans to carry out an attack.
The Justice Department has charged roughly 20 people with planning to travel to the Middle East to fight alongside militant groups like the Islamic State group. Those include Shannon Conley, a Colorado woman who pleaded guilty last year to trying to help the group and who authorities say was intent on waging jihad in Syria, as well as Hamza Ahmed, who was stopped on his way to Syria in November and was charged this month with lying to the FBI.