Albanian pleads guilty in terror case just 4 years after gaining US residency

Arrested in New York before flying to Turkey en route to Pakistan, the Albanian man had told his contact in a Pakistani terrorist group that he wanted to 'marry with the girls in paradise.'

An Albanian man who was granted permanent residency in the US four years ago pleaded guilty Thursday to providing material support to a listed Islamic terror group operating in Pakistan.

Agron Hasbajrami was arrested in September as he prepared to fly from New York City on a one-way ticket to Turkey for planned travel through Iran to Pakistan.

Mr. Hasbajrami sent $1,000 to the Pakistan-based group, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and expressed his willingness to fight and, if necessary, die in the group’s avowed “holy war” against US forces in the region, according to court documents.

US District Judge John Gleeson accepted the guilty plea in federal court in Brooklyn. Hasbajrami faces up to 15 years in prison and has agreed to be deported after serving any prison sentence.

The case highlights how federal counter-terror agents are using material support statutes to identify potential militant Muslims in the US before they are able to travel overseas and take up arms against American soldiers.

Charging suspected militant Muslims for supporting designated terror groups overseas is an innovation that stems from the Bush administration’s war on terror. Federal agents and prosecutors have used the law to try to identify a suspect’s propensity to engage in criminal acts by exposing his expressed desire to help radical Islamic causes. The material support statute makes it explicitly illegal to give any assistance or help to a specially-designated terror group.  

“The defendant reached across the ocean from Brooklyn to Pakistan, seeking out terrorists in the hopes of becoming one,” US Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

“Once he found what he sought, he pledged his money, his energy, and the end of his own life to the goal of spreading terror abroad,” she said.

Hasbajrami lived in Brooklyn and began sending money to a militant organization in Pakistan in 2010 as a result of a public appeal by the group for funds. His methods were not sophisticated. He simply wired the money via Western Union to an intermediary in Pakistan.

In April 2011, Hasbajrami told his contact in Pakistan – apparently with US agents monitoring the communication – that he wanted to travel to Pakistan and “marry with the girls in paradise,” according to court documents.

The documents say the reference to “girls in paradise” is “common jihadist rhetoric that refers to dying as a martyr while fighting [in a] jihad.”

Hasbajrami was instructed to obtain an Iranian visa and fly to Iran via Istanbul. Another contact would meet him in Iran and facilitate his onward journey to Pakistan, documents say.

He was told to bring enough money to pay for his food and to purchase a weapon.

The group, TTP, is listed by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. Providing material support to such a group is a violation of federal law.

In May 2011, Hasbajrami’s Pakistan-based contact informed him that the group had killed American soldiers, court documents say. The news did not alter his plans, according to court documents.

In September, federal agents arranged for a confidential source to contact Hasbajrami and offer to assist the Albanian in any travel plans to Pakistan.

Within days, Hasbajrami purchased a one-way ticket to Istanbul. When he arrived at Kennedy International Airport for the Sept. 6 flight, federal agents were waiting for him. After he was placed under arrest, they discovered he was carrying his Albanian passport with an expired Iranian visa, as well as a tent, boots, and cold-weather gear.

During questioning, Hasbajrami admitted to FBI agents that he had sent money to his contact in Pakistan and that he intended to travel to Pakistan to fight, documents say.

Later a search of his residence in Brooklyn revealed a note: “Do not wait for invasion, the time is martyrdom time.”

After his arrest, prosecutors urged a federal judge to order that he be held without bond pending his trial. “Hasbajrami has repeatedly expressed and provided strong support for an extremist cause, not only by sending money to support terrorist activities, but also by attempting to travel himself to fight a jihad and die,” they wrote in their brief to the judge.

“If not for his arrest, he would have traveled to Pakistan to wage jihad and aim to kill American soldiers,” New York FBI field office chief Janice Fedarcyk said in a statement.

“Our mission includes not only preventing acts of terrorism here but also preventing would-be terrorists from going abroad to harm Americans,” she said.

“The plea demonstrates that Brooklyn is not a place from which to launch terrorist aspirations without a good chance of being captured and prosecuted,” Ms. Fedarcyk said. “Vigilance paid dividends again.”

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