A preemptively prosecuted domestic terrorism case in the US state of North Carolina that I have scrutinized because of the vague nature of the government’s conspiracy charges, and the use of paid undercover FBI informants, took a new twist in recent days.
The government alleges that Hysen Sherifi, one of three young Muslim men from the Raleigh area convicted of terrorism conspiracy charges in September, plotted to hire someone to murder the paid undercover FBI informants who testified against him at trial. Sherifi was sentenced to 45 years in prison earlier this month.
The government’s case against Sherifi and his co-defendants rested largely on the testimony of three paid undercover FBI informants, some of whom had a criminal background. An undercover agent who went by the code name “Jawbreaker” was paid $110,000 by the FBI and gained a residency card despite overstaying a visa and remaining “illegally” in the country.
Robert McAfee, Sherifi’s attorney, also blamed Jawbreaker for thrusting his client and Boyd together. The informant used FBI money to pay for Sherifi to return to the U.S. from Kosovo, where he was living with his wife and child, McAfee said.
At his sentencing hearing earlier this month, Sherifi stated in frustration, “They entrapped me to come back to this country, but they would not give me those tapes,” referring to the more than 700 hours of surreptitiously recorded material provided to the government by the undercover informants which were used as evidence against Sherifi.
Before the case went to trial, a federal judge expressed skepticism over charges against the Raleigh-area men, saying the government’s case “depended partly on an ‘unnamed, unidentified and uncharacterized’ witness who had interpreted what the government said was coded speech by the suspected terrorists.”
Sherifi’s younger brother Shkumbin and Nevine Elshiekh, who has been part of efforts to show support and solidarity to the three defendants who were recently tried and sentenced, were arrested separately on Sunday and both have been charged with planning a murder-for-hire scheme.
FBI affidavit outlines alleged murder-for-hire plot
An FBI special agent’s affidavit used to authorize the arrest of Elshiekh says that Hysen Sherifi, detained in a federal prison, had requested the assistance of an FBI informant in hiring someone to kill witnesses who testified against him during his trial, as well as an inmate who he believed defrauded him of money.
The ten-page affidavit states that Sherifi was recorded at the New Hanover County Detention facility telling the FBI source that “he wants photographs taken, and provided too [sic] him, of the dead bodies and severed heads” of the victims, adding that he wanted the bodies to be disposed of.
The affidavit alleges that Sherifi wanted the witnesses who testified against him at trial “to completely disappear so they cannot testify against him, and others, at any future trials,” and that he told the FBI source “he may use the photographs of the dead bodies and severed heads to convince other potential witnesses not to testify against him, or his co-conspirators, at future proceedings.”
According to the affidavit, another confidential source was “developed” as part of the investigation, and Elshiekh passed along information related to the intended victims of the alleged plot between Sherifi and the confidential sources. The affidavit also states that FBI Special Agent James Langtry, whose sworn testimony is the basis of the affidavit, provided to one of the confidential sources a photograph taken by FBI agents several days earlier. The confidential source in turn provided it to Elshiekh, per Sherifi’s instructions, the affidavit states.
It is also alleged that Elshiekh gave $750 to one of the confidential sources, and during that same meeting wrote a note stating “His brother is coming Saturday with the rest.” Approximately a week later, according to the affidavit, Shkumbin Sherifi (the detained man’s brother) gave the same confidential source $4,250 and acknowledged that Elshiekh already gave $750, bringing the total to $5,000.
The affidavit states:
After counting the money, CS-2 [the second confidential source] confirmed to Shkumbin Sherifi that the total amount was $5,000. Based on this dollar amount, CS-2 then told Sherifi, “So you know that’s only for one person. So you need to ask Sherifi which one he want killed. The black guy or Arab.” Shkumbin Sherifi replied, “Okay, um does he, um, are you guys in touch?” He later claimed to not know what was going on but promised to speak with his brother and get a response to CS-2’s questions later on.
“Islam on trial”
Following the sentencing of Hysen Sherifi and his co-defendants Omar Aly Hassan and Ziyad Yaghi earlier this month, I had interviewed Nevine Elshiekh, a teacher of elementary school students with developmental disabilities. She considered the sentencing unjust and hoped that during the appeals, evidence would be shown to vindicate the defendants.
“I think Islam has been on trial,” she told me, referring to how the trial focused on the perceived ideology of the defendants, rather than actual acts of harm any of them had committed.
“Islam is on trial by people who don’t understand Islam,” she said.
In my report on the sentencing hearing, I had also embedded a tweet Shkumbin Sherifi wrote shortly after the sentencing of his brother:
Nevine’s sister, Nina, declined to be interviewed on record. A voice message with the Sherifi family was unreturned.
Brother concerned by FBI role
Following his brother’s sentencing, Shkumbin Sherifi participated in a town hall meeting on preemptive prosecution in Washington, DC organized by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
In a speech made at the meeting uploaded to YouTube the day he was arrested, Shkumbin Sherifi discusses the backlash after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and relates this to his brother’s trial.
In the video Sherifi claims government prosecutors stated during their opening statement for Hysen’s trial, ”This is not a war on Islam, this case is not about Islam, but let me tell you something about Islam,” referring to how the faith of Hysen Sherifi and his co-defendants was emphasized throughout the trial.
Shkumbin Sherifi also says that “entrapment is the common thread” in cases targeting Muslims throughout the United States, adding that before his arrest, Hysen was living in Kosovo with his then pregnant wife and only returned to the US after an FBI informant paid for his plane ticket, apartment and computer. An informant also invited him to shoot guns shortly before he was indicted and arrested.
Hysen Sherifi has not ever met his two-year-old daughter in Kosovo, Shkumbin Sherifi states in the video. The Sherifi family are originally from Kosovo but fled the war and received refugee status in the US and eventually became citizens.
Shkumbin Sherifi and two of his sisters also discuss the prosecution of their brother in another video taken during the conference. Sherifi emphasizes how one of his brother’s co-defendants, Omar Aly Hassan, was prosecuted after he declined to cooperate with the FBI in their investigation of the alleged ringleader of the terrorism conspiracies for which they were tried in September, saying he didn’t have any information on the man.
The alleged ringleader, Daniel Boyd, along with his two adult sons who were also indicted, took plea agreements earlier last year and have cooperated with government prosecutors. Boyd’s sons Zakariya and Dylan were sentenced to eight to nine years. Daniel Boyd will be sentenced after the trial of co-defendant Anes Subasic, who is being tried separately because he is representing himself.
Though they are cooperating with the government prosecution, all three Boyd men stated during last September’s trial that their co-defendants were not implicated in any conspiracy with them.
Hysen Sherifi apparently didn’t have any relationship to the co-defendants who were on trial with him, and only met Ziyad Yaghi and Omar Aly Hassan for the first time during their court hearings.
Community reacts to arrests
Meanwhile, those who rallied around the three who were tried last September are busy gathering character reference letters, skeptical of the government’s claims against Sherifi and Elshiekh.
Though Shkumbin Sherifi and Nevine Elshiekh have not yet stood trial, their arrests in the alleged plot have been widely reported and thus they are being tried in the court of public opinion, like Sherifi’s brother and his co-defendants were before their trial. A community under surveillance and subjected to widespread infiltration will meanwhile have difficulty believing the government’s — and specifically the FBI’s — latest claims.
The so-called North Carolina “Triangle Terror” case illustrates the problems with the way domestic terrorism cases are investigated and prosecuted. One of these problems is the use of paid, undercover FBI informants — often of questionable character and credibility — to entrap and convict Muslim Americans. This practice foments distrust between citizenry and law enforcement, potentially undermining public safety and democracy.
Underlining this problem, around the time of the arrest of Sherifi and Elshiekh, it was exposed that the New York Police Department — which has come under fire for working with the CIA to “map” and intensely surveile the Muslim community — used an Islamophobic video to train 1,000 officers. The video shows scenes of violence and claims that Islamists have designs to “infiltrate and dominate the country” — echoing language used by US attorneys during their prosecution of the North Carolina men, who they claimed were intent on waging violent “jihad” and wished to convert or kill all non-Muslims and impose “Sharia law.”
The New York Times editors yesterday condemned the NYPD’s use of the “hateful” video and the lack of accountability after the use of the video was exposed:
Relations between police and the diverse Muslim community are already tense after The Associated Press uncovered aggressive surveillance of Muslims, including American citizens. The propaganda of this film will only damage those relations further and make law enforcement more difficult.
Islamophobia has become a pervasive and dangerous phenomenon throughout the US, and law enforcement’s use of anti-Muslim fearmongering material and language in both police training and federal courtrooms should set off alarm bells.
Indeed, the The New York Times’ warning to the New York Police Department holds true in North Carolina, where many in the Muslim community perceive that their religion has been put on trial, and its members surveilled and subjected to FBI intimidation and entrapment because of their faith.