First person tried under New York terror laws passed in the wake of 9/11 is sentenced to 18 years
By Brynn Gingras and Yon Pomrenze, CNN
(CNN) -- Abdullah el-Faisal believed every word in a speech by Osama bin Laden was "like a gem," and thought images of the coffins of US service members were laughable, New York prosecutors say.
They also believe the Muslim cleric is "one of the most influential English-speaking terrorists of our time," Assistant District Attorney Gary Galperin said during opening statements at Faisal's trial on state terrorism charges.
Now, Faisal has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.
A Manhattan court sentenced him Thursday after a nearly three-month trial in which he was found guilty of five terrorism-related charges. He is the first person to be tried under New York state terror laws passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the district attorney's office said.
"Tragically, Manhattan will continue to be a target for those who want to harm this country," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said. "Working with our federal and state law enforcement partners, our office stands at the ready to continue combatting terrorism."
The sentencing was the culmination of a yearslong investigation by the NYPD's Intelligence Bureau and the district attorney's counterterrorism program.
It spanned continents and involved stealth work by an undercover NYPD officer who gained Faisal's trust by posing as a would-be jihadist. Communications between the officer and Faisal ultimately helped cement the case against a man whose reach extended far beyond his home in Jamaica, prosecutors say.
He was found guilty on all five counts, including soliciting or providing support of an act of terrorism and conspiracy as a crime of terrorism -- though Faisal's defense team argued that he never took action and his preachings on Islam were just words.
Faisal plans to appeal; at the sentencing, his attorney called the evidence against him "razor-thin."
Radicalized in the UK
Faisal is a Jamaican-born Muslim convert who radicalized while spending time in England in the late 1990s. He became a fixture at a London mosque where he gave fiery speeches on Islam. His charisma, coupled with his command of English, attracted hundreds of people to his sermons.
Faisal was eventually deported from the UK after serving less than half of a nine-year sentence on charges of inciting hatred and soliciting the murder of Jews, Americans and Hindus. Eventually, he returned to his native Jamaica.
"When ISIS kicked off in 2014 so did he, and his activities went from a lot of vitriol and hateful rhetoric to really energizing his commitment to mobilizing people to commit acts of violence and to join terrorist organizations," said Rebecca Weiner, assistant commissioner of the NYPD's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Bureau.
Faisal began publishing his hateful preaching and pushing violent extremism online, amassing a global network of followers, prosecutors say.
"His lectures grew, they changed formats, they changed platforms," Weiner said. "His rhetoric became much more uninhibited and more violent in nature."
Authorities say they can tie Faisal's influence to a number of convicted terrorists. They include:
- Jermaine Lindsay -- who blew himself up on a London Underground train as part of an orchestrated attack on the city's transit system in 2005.
- Richard Reid -- aka the "shoe bomber," who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight in 2001.
- Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab -- aka the "underwear bomber," who in 2009 attempted to detonate a bomb on a Christmas Day flight in the United States.
- Faisal Shahzad -- who built a truck bomb and drove it into Times Square in 2010. It didn't successfully detonate.
Authorities also believe one of the 9/11 hijackers was inspired by Faisal's teachings.
Faisal's name "kept coming up" in interviews with suspects as their inspiration and "that's when we realized we needed to focus on him, focus on the people that were following him and try and arrest him," said Chief Thomas Galati, who leads the counterterrorism bureau.
'Somebody from us will contact you'
The bureau's investigation of Faisal was launched in early 2016.
"We knew that (Faisal) was talking to people in New York City and we had some understanding that he was helping people leave the country and join ISIS by hooking them up with other people who could help them get into Syria," Galati said.
With that in mind, the investigators ultimately turned to a detective identified as Undercover Officer 716, who posed as a 25-year-old with medical training named "Mavish." She began communicating with Faisal, enlisting his help to join the terrorist organization overseas.
At first, she didn't know the scope of Faisal's impact, she told CNN in an exclusive interview. "I didn't believe he had that much of an influence," the officer said, "because the way he portrayed himself in social media and lectures was strict and he was just straight flirting (with me) and acting as a nonbeliever."
Text and email exchanges revealed in court show Faisal weaved from spreading his jihadist message to offering "Mavish" help in finding a suitable partner for her from the ranks of ISIS fighters. He even suggested she marry him. "I don't want you to marry anybody else," one text message read, "I want you for myself."
The officer said she would put the "uncomfortable" conversations to the back of her mind as she maintained her persona. "Let him hear what he wants to hear," she would tell herself, "this is to protect all the innocent lives that could possibly get harmed if I don't stay in character," she told CNN.
Faisal also gave her stern warnings about her communications, so as not to alert law enforcement. "Don't mention these things on my fone (sic). I will get arrested," text messages show.
The correspondence lasted for months as the undercover officer traveled to Abu Dhabi and Jordan, at times making video calls with Faisal to show landmarks. He was trying to verify her identity, authorities say. "We were able to show him what he asked us to show him. That's when he trusted us," Galati said.
That trust led Faisal to connect "Mavish" with an ISIS fighter on the front lines in Raqqa, Syria, who began collecting information from her and promised to help her gain entry to the Islamic State. In one voicemail, the fighter says, "give me your WhatsApp and your Telegram ... and somebody from us will contact you."
Galati and his team traveled to Jamaica to arrest Faisal in 2017, according to NYPD. Even though he had never traveled to the United States, Manhattan prosecutors pursued the five terrorism-related charges against Faisal, based on state laws passed in the aftermath of 9/11. After an extradition fight, Faisal was finally brought to the US in 2020.
"This was someone who was the lead English-speaking operative for ISIS, he was projecting his vile message into Manhattan. His impact is clear," Bragg, the district attorney, told CNN.
"While he may not have set foot here, his message, his voice and his horrific impact did."
Undercover 716 saw Faisal for the first time when she testified in court against him.
"When I saw him, I was happy that he was there because of the amount of people that he harmed, and we were able to get him," she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when Abdullah el-Faisal was arrested. It was in 2017.
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