Mohamed Rafik Naji, 37, discussed driving a truck through the busy New York City tourist attraction in the days after the July 2016 attack in France, which left 86 people dead.
Naji, a citizen of Yemen, is a permanent legal resident of the United States, authorities said.
The Nice attack was carried about by truck driver Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel , who pledged his allegiance to ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. He was killed during the attack.
“As we alleged in our complaint today, Naji has shown continued support to ISIL, beginning in 2014 with social media posts and ultimately traveling to Yemen in March 2015 where he claimed his allegiance to ISIL stating, ‘I belong to Islamic state only.’ He continued to express support for ISIL and violent jihad upon his return in the US months later. Terrorism threats, like Naji, are only mitigated through the joint efforts of law enforcement to protect our communities,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge William Sweeney said in a statement.
Court documents in the case against Naji were unsealed Monday in the Eastern District of New York court.
“As alleged, the defendant was persistent in his efforts to join ISIL and support its terrorist objectives,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Robert Capers said in a statement. “We will continue to identify and prosecute individuals like Naji who seek to empower our nation’s enemies and endanger our citizens and partners around the world.”
Here’s what you need to know about Naji:
1. ‘If There Is a Truck, I Mean a Garbage Truck & One Drives It There to Times Square & Crushes Them … Times Square Day’
Mohamed Naji talked about a possible attack on Times Square during a recorded conversation with a paid informant, according to court documents. The conversation took place on July 19, 2016, five days after the terror attack in Nice, France, FBI Special Agent Sean Puhalovic wrote in the affidavit supporting Naji’s arrest.
During the conversation Naji said the attacker “crushed them quickly,” when talking about the attack.
“I was saying if there is a truck, I mean a garbage truck and one drives it there to Times Square and crushes them shshshshshsh…Times Square day,” Naji told the informant.
“They want an operation in Times Square,” Naji said, referring to ISIS. “Reconnaissance group already put out a scene, the Islamic State put up scenes of Times Square you understand I said that was an indication for whoever is smart to know.”
When asked who will carry out the attack, Naji told the informant, “Allah’s people, the Islamic State.”
Puhalovic, the FBI special agent, wrote in his affidavit that “Jihadist propaganda has long counseled followers to commit acts of violence like the one described by Naji; i.e., by using vehicles as weapons.”
He said the propaganda has called for lone “mujahids” to commit acts of “violent Jihad ‘using a truck as done by the Lone Mujahid in the Nice operation.'” Puhlaovic also said the July 2016 issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s offcial magazine, “praised the ‘brother’ who answered the ‘Islamic State’s calls to target nations participating in the Crusader coalition fighting against the Caliphate’ by ‘killing more than 80 people and injuring more than 300 others’ in the Nice attacks.”
2. He Began Posted Videos & Photos Supporting ISIS on Social Media, Including Using the ISIS Flag in His Facebook Cover Photo, the FBI Says
According to court documents unsealed Monday in the Eastern District of New York federal court, the FBI began monitoring social media posts and other communications made by Mohamed Naji starting in 2014.
You can read the affidavit, written by FBI Special Agent Sean Puhlaovic, supporting the criminal complaint against Naji above.
“Beginning in December 2014, through social media posts, Naji expressed his support of ISIL by, among other posts, sharing a video of the now deceased ISIL-leader Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani advocating violence against civilian targets,” prosecutors said.
3. He Spent 6 Months in Yemen in an Effort to Join ISIS Before Coming Back to the United States, the FBI Says
Naji also spent six months in his native country of Yemen in an effort to join ISIS, traveling there from New York in March 2015 and returning in September 2015, according to court documents.
While there, prosecutors said he tried repeatedly, at least five times, to travel to areas controlled by ISIS, according to emails sent to his girlfriend in the United States. At one point he said he was almost killed by the “army” and spent six days hiding in the mountains with no food and water. He received thousands of dollars by wire transfer from his girlfriend while in Yemen, and was worried about his communications being tracked, telling her to “erase all ur messages … even from your trash,” according to court documents.
He also sent a video, titled “First day on the job,” with gunfire in the background. The FBI says ISIS was fighting in Yemen around the time of the April 21, 2015, video.
4. ISIS Recently Called New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade an ‘Excellent Target’ for a Truck Attack
Naji was arrested Monday at his home in Brooklyn, New York, according to court documents.
He is being charged with providing material support to terrorists.
His arrest comes three days before Thanksgiving, as the NYPD and federal law enforcement are on high alert of an ISIS-inspired attack on the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade. ISIS encouraged its followers to rent trucks and use them to carry out Nice-style attack in its English language magazine this month.
The terror organization called the New York parade, which draws about 3.5 million people to the city, “an excellent target.” The attack in France occurred during a celebration of Bastille Day.
Police have said they plan to station sand-filled trucks and erect concrete barriers along the parade route as blockades to stop trucks, NBC News reports.
“As alleged, the defendant expressed a devotion to join ISIL through both conversation and social media, traveling to Yemen in an effort to join their ranks,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement. “Detectives and agents on the Joint Terrorism Task Force uncovered the alleged terrorist objectives of the defendant. I want to commend their work in continually protecting New York City, and our nation, from those who seek to harm us.”
5. Prosecutors Say He Should Be Detained Because He Is a ‘Flight Risk’ & a ‘Danger to the Community’
Prosecutors have asked for Naji to be detained in federal custody pending a trial, saying he is a “flight risk” and poses a “danger to the community.”
You can read the prosecutors document supporting that assertion above. Naji made his first appearance in federal court Monday afternoon in Brooklyn.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement after Naji’s arrest, saying it’s a “sharp reminder” of the evolving global threat of terrorism.
“New York must remain vigilant in the face of hate and intolerance, and continue to advance the core values of democracy that this state and nation were founded upon,” Cuomo said. “While we do not have any specific threat at this time, public safety is paramount and we will continue to work aggressively with all local and federal partners.”