Bilal Abood, the Mesquite man arrested Thursday as part of a counter-terrorism investigation, hasn't committed any act of violence. Nor, so far as the government seems able to prove, has he threatened to commit an act of violence; if prosecutors have evidence to the contrary, they didn't present it to U.S. Magistrate Judge Renee Tolliver at a hearing this morning to decide whether Abood should remain in federal custody pending a criminal trial.
Really, Abood's propensity for violence (or lack thereof) and his alleged endorsement of ISIS, the violent Islamic terror group currently wreaking havoc in the Middle East and inflicting ankle injuries in Garland, are only tangentially related to the government's case against him. Because Abood's alleged crime isn't terrorism; it's lying to the FBI. About a tweet.
Most of this morning's hearing involved the head prosecutor leading FBI Special Agent John Brown, a two-year veteran of the bureau, through a recitation of facts about Abood's alleged connections with terrorist groups, most of which were contained in a criminal complaint filed in federal court earlier this week. Abood, a U.S. citizen who served as a translator for the U.S. military after the invasion of his native Iraq, sat quietly in an orange jumpsuit and close-cropped beard, whispering occasionally to his attorney.
On March 29, 2013, FBI agents prevented Abood from boarding an Iraq-bound flight at DFW Airport, which he said he was taking to visit family members. During a followup interview at his apartment the following week, Abood admitted that, actually, he'd been planning to travel to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad who, then as now, was brutally prosecuting the country's civil war. Agents told Abood, who by now was on the no-fly list, not to go, but he ignored them. Less than a month later he was aboard a flight out of Mexico, the first leg of his journey to Syria.
The FBI interviewed Abood once again on his return to the U.S. four months later. He admitted traveling to Syria and spending several months in the Deir Ezzour region, ostensibly aligning himself with the Free Syrian Army, though Brown said at this morning's hearing that it's much more likely that he teamed up with the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked terror group that dominated Deir Ezzour at the time. Several months later the FBI obtained a warrant to search Abood's apartment, finding on his hard drive various pieces of pro-ISIS propaganda and, critically, a June 19, 2014, tweet: "I pledge obedience to the Caliphate [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi." When agents returned Abood's computer nine months later, in April, they asked if Abood had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, he said no, a claim that was directly contradicted by the tweet.
Brown delivered a couple of new pieces of information. Abood, he said, had contacted the FBI in early 2014 seeking to be removed from the no-fly list. They required that he first pass a polygraph test, but the machine "indicated deception" in his answers to two questions: whether he supported the al-Nusra Front and whether the was a member of the al-Nusra Front. Brown also revealed that an informant reported to agents that Abood had expressed anti-American sentiments, specifically that "the United States is an enemy of God."
The evidence presented by prosecutors left little doubt that Abood is pro-ISIS. In addition to the tweet, investigators found on Abood's computer various pieces of ISIS-related propaganda: gruesome photos showing decapitated heads and pickup trucks laden with dead Shiites; a saccharine ballad in Arabic intended, the court was told, to comfort the grieving mothers of dead jihadists. According to Brown, Abood's untruth hampered the FBI's ability to conduct a terrorism investigation and thus keep America safe.
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But again, the main question wasn't whether Abood is pro-ISIS but whether he lied to the FBI about his tweet. Abood's lawyer, public defender Sam Ogan, made an attempt to spin his client's online pronouncement as an empty display of bravado aimed at impressing the online jihadist community, meaning that his statement to the FBI that he hadn't pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi had in fact been true, but the effort fell flat. Tolliver ruled that Abood probably did lie to the FBI.
In and of itself, telling a lie isn't justification for locking someone up before their guilt has been established. So prosecutors, with an assist from Brown, set about proving that Abood presents a flight risk and that releasing him would endanger the public.
Given that Abood hasn't had a job for the past two years, that most of his close family is in Irag, and that he has a demonstrated propensity to travel to Syria against the FBI's wishes, establishing the former was straightforward. Discussion of the latter was shaded by fears of homegrown terrorism, made more acute by this month's shooting in Garland. ISIS has expressed a desire to wage war everywhere. Abood, with his Army training (he made it through basic but no further) and experience as a security guard, would be extremely useful to the organization if it were to stage an attack on U.S. soil. He has, after all, "sworn to obey the orders of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi." Further, the prosecutor argued, Abood poses a danger just by sitting in his living room sharing pro-ISIS photos and videos with other would-be jihadists. Tolliver ordered Abood to remain in federal custody.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.