On July 28, 2016, FBI Special Agent John Sikorski received an encrypted message with a list of Google Play gift card codes. The total value of the gift cards was $245. Despite the modest sum, it was a big win many years in the making for the FBI’s counterterrorism unit.
Sikorski was working undercover, posing as an American named Mo who had joined ISIS in Syria. He had sent a message to terror suspect Nicholas Young, requesting gift cards to help fighters communicate with recruits via an encrypted app.
After Young sent the Google Play codes, he was arrested and charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
It took six years and millions of dollars to prosecute Young, according to a court filing. Young, 38, was a Virginia-based Metro DC transit officer who converted to Islam after the death of his father sent him spiraling into depression.
Agents participating in the case gave Young the code name Slow Decline.
Even as the FBI was investigating Young as a possible terrorist sympathizer, he continued to work as a transit cop, carrying a service weapon and patrolling train stations around the nation’s capital. During a jailhouse interview with The Washington Post, Young acknowledged he enjoyed violent movies, death metal and dark humor but he stressed he did not support the Islamic State.
“They’re really grasping at straws here, trying to take everything I said out of context and take it in the most sinister light,” Young said. (When contacted by CNN, Young’s attorney said his client is not interested in participating in any further interviews).
Young’s sister told the newspaper, “The only thing extreme about my brother is his videogame playing.”
The Slow Decline sting operation involved at least two undercover employees and a paid informant who called himself Mo, who bonded with Young by discussing ex-girlfriends and misadventures on the dating scene. The informant and his handling agent made a taxpayer-funded trip to Turkey so they could take photos of landmarks to make Mo’s story of joining ISIS abroad more believable.
The FBI had reasons for investing time and resources in Slow Decline. The investigation began in 2010, after one of Young’s college acquaintances, Zachary Chesser, was arrested for attempting to provide material support to Al-Shabaab. At the time, Young told the FBI he was shocked. He said it would have been his personal and religious duty to report any suspicious activity.
Meanwhile, Young was engaged in a dispute with his supervisors at Metro DC, who were concerned about the length of his beard and his display of religious items, including a Quran, in his workspace. It is unclear whether Young’s bosses reported him to the bureau.
An undercover FBI employee, “Khalil” met Young at a wedding while looking into suspected jihadists in the Washington suburbs. Khalil described himself to Young as a disillusioned Marine who felt the military would revoke his security clearance if they learned he practiced Islam. During their first conversation, Young talked about conspiracies against Muslims in America, according to trial transcripts.
Khalil began keeping notes on Young even though his main job was investigating one of Chesser’s associates, Liban Mohamed, a former taxi driver who ultimately traveled to Somalia and joined Al-Shabaab. Mohamed was apprehended overseas in 2015. Young had no links to Mohamed beyond the fact that they both knew Chesser.
For more than a year, Young confided in Khalil, praising Ron Paul and criticizing Barack Obama as they met up for meals, movies and walks on golf courses. He told Khalil he got word from a female friend that he was under investigation. Young said he feared his phones were tapped and his home was being surveilled. He boasted about his gun collection and said he had a right to shoot anyone who trespassed on his property. If law enforcement tried to search his house: “That’s what amphetamines, ballistic vests and assault rifles are for.”
Khalil also reported that Young had joked about kidnapping, sexually assaulting and torturing a female FBI agent who interviewed him, according to prosecutors.
It was a pattern that continued for years, documented in court records. Young’s comments would raise red flags, yet he didn’t cross the threshold into illegal conduct. His record was clean aside from one traffic infraction.
Twice in 2011, Young vanished for weeks without explanation, Khalil testified. He used vacation time to make two trips to Libya during the Arab Spring uprising against Moammar Gadhafi. While abroad, he connected with members of a rebel group called the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, according to encrypted messages presented as trial exhibits.
Based in the port city of Derna, the brigade had alleged ties to al Qaeda and advocated for Sharia law. In 2015, roughly a year after the Islamic State declared its caliphate, the brigade fought back against ISIS’ attempt to take over Derna.
When Young returned from his first visit to Libya, he told authorities at the airport that he had provided medical aid to injured rebels at various locations in Misrata and Benghazi (where the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade had little to no presence). He said he had handled an AK-47 while riding in a Jeep but did not fire the weapon. Young talked about ducking gunshots and mortar rounds in Misrata while wearing a ballistic vest with a red crescent painted on the back. He was later diagnosed with PTSD by a court-appointed psychologist.
Young didn’t mention Derna or the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade while being questioned by an airport investigator from the Department of Homeland Security, nor would he identify the individuals he had met in Libya. At the end of the interview with DHS, he said, “What gives? I’ve been getting the stink eye since 2008.”
Customs and Border Protection agents confiscated body armor that had been found in his luggage. Although the Transportation Security Administration generally allows individuals to travel with body armor in carry-on and checked bags, security officers may seize items for evaluation.
Young participated in World War II re-enactments, portraying a Nazi storm trooper named Klaus Düsselkamp. He legally owned approximately 19 guns, as well as tactical gear and about 60 knives, daggers and swords. He had 18,000 rounds of ammunition. The back of his truck was emblazoned with bumper stickers: “Boycott the terrorist state of Israel” and “Libyan Civil War Vet, Siege of Misrata, April-May 2011.”
In an era of active shooters and fringe political violence, the FBI has a mandate to stop potentially dangerous individuals before they act. Investigating suspected homegrown violent extremists — people inspired by the global jihadist movement — remains its top priority, but law enforcement is also concerned about domestic terrorism, FBI director Christopher Wray said during an August speech at a national security conference in Utah.
Wray said the bureau is investigating about 1,000 domestic terror cases, looking into extremists who may target government buildings, racial minorities or religious groups. Last Wednesday, two African-Americans were killed in a Kentucky supermarket by a lone shooter who was initially targeting a black church. Last Friday, the FBI arrested a Florida man for mailing explosive devices to Democratic politicians, former intelligence chiefs and other prominent figures, as well as CNN’s world headquarters in Atlanta. Last Saturday, an apparent white supremacist gunned down 11 elderly people at a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat services. It is a federal crime to provide material support to foreign terror organizations but there is no corresponding law pertaining to domestic terror groups or acts of domestic terrorism.
The problem in Young’s case was that for all his bluster and thinly veiled anger, six years of sleuth work had failed to produce evidence that he was plotting an attack or planning to join a designated foreign terrorist organization overseas. (The Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade is not listed by the State Department as an FTO or an al Qaeda affiliate).
As an informant, Mo was tasked with helping the FBI assess whether Young was just venting or if he seriously could be planning something. Mo’s efforts yielded mixed results. While Young provided Mo with some traveling tips for foreign fighters, he also condemned ISIS. He said he had seen a mug shot of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on the news and concluded the caliphate was a scam.
“They sound like a bunch of criminals hungry for power and money,” Young said, according to court records.
Young told Mo he could go to Syria and participate in the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad without swearing an oath to violent extremists. “There are other groups in Syria that are not illegal terrorist organizations,” Young said.
The day before the FBI informant departed on his fictitious trip to Syria, Young told him it wasn’t too late to cancel.
“It would be OK if you change your mind,” Young said. “Sometimes, we get stuck in one mindset out of pride.”
For all his cautionary words, Young never reported Mo to authorities and he wound up aiding his friend on his purported journey to the caliphate.
Young set up secret email addresses to communicate with Mo while he was overseas. Young’s email name was Essa Kobayashi and Mo used V4Vendetta. Young went to FedEx stores to check for messages from Mo rather than using his home computer. He had multiple “burner” phones, registered in the names of movie and video game characters including Otis Driftwood (“The Devil’s Rejects”) and Simon Belmont (“Castlevania”).
It takes more than burner phones and secret email accounts to build a material support case, so the FBI continued investigating Young for nearly two years after Mo supposedly went to the Middle East in October 2014. Agents were concerned because as a sworn officer of the law, Young should have turned Mo in once he started talking about joining ISIS in Syria.
FBI employees took over Mo’s V4Vendetta email account. They reached out to Young but weeks and months would pass with no reply. In March 2016, the FBI got more proactive. In an email, Mo said fighters were redeeming gift card codes to purchase credits for an encrypted messaging app. Young did not respond. The agents posing as Mo sent another email in April. Nothing. In June, Young finally replied and agreed to download the encrypted app on his phone but he did not offer to send gift cards.
In July, Mo directly asked Young to buy gift cards to help the cause. Agents working on the case referred to the gift card request as a “defibrillator” to revive a stagnant investigation, according to discovery materials obtained by the defense.
After two requests, agent Sikorski finally received the fateful message with the codes on July 28, 2016.
A different kind of extremism
When agents searched Young’s house in August 2016 for proof of ISIS support, they found evidence of a profoundly different strain of extremism. His home décor included a framed portrait of Hitler and he had printouts of the Nazi leader’s photo with a caption, “When I come back, no more Mr. Nice Guy.”
Young owned a Confederate flag that read, “Rebel Blood in My Veins, Yankee Blood in My Yard.” On his computer, he saved a cartoon titled “Jewish swine,” depicting a pig wearing a yarmulke. An Israeli flag served as a doormat on his porch. Young had a flyer for Burning Cross Records, a white power rock label. Young’s vanity license plate read, “FRI-KRP,” an apparent reference to the Freikorps, a post-World War I German paramilitary group that predated the Nazis.
The agents executing the search warrant didn’t know whether they should confiscate the far right and Nazi propaganda as evidence in a radical Islamic terrorism case, so they called the assistant US attorney and got the green light to take the items.
In terms of evidence to back the allegation that Young was providing a foreign terrorist group with material support, agents found bookmarked ISIS videos on his computer and an iPod containing pro-jihadi songs. There was a paper copy of an al Qaeda magazine called Inspire from fall 2010, as well as an Osama bin Laden speech saved on his computer.
A majority of individuals charged with terror-related offenses plead guilty rather than going to trial, according to a 2011 study by the Georgia State University Law Review and a CNN analysis of ISIS arrests from 2014 to this year. Young, however, didn’t agree to a plea deal with prosecutors. His trial was held last December at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. The court is nicknamed the “rocket docket” for its efficiency handling a heavy caseload.
Young’s lawyers presented an entrapment defense, which hinges on proof that the government induced illegal conduct and the defendant had no predisposition to commit a crime. When attorneys claim entrapment, it opens the door for prosecutors to introduce evidence unrelated to the offense as part of a “searching inquiry” into an individual’s background prior to his or her first contact with government agents.
The entrapment defense meant the Nazi memorabilia found at Young’s home was admissible at trial, the court ruled, to show that he was radicalized before the FBI began its investigation.
Prosecutors showed the jury white supremacist materials to support their argument that Young was predisposed to support radical Islamic terrorism. They called on an expert witness to discuss historical and present-day links between Nazism and violent jihad.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an author and senior fellow at a foreign policy/national security think tank called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified about eight cases involving neo-Nazis who embraced militant Islam and engaged in violence or terror support. He said Islamists and Nazis have a connection dating to the Third Reich, rooted in anti-Semitism. On Young’s computer, agents found a German propaganda poster depicting a generic Nazi soldier shaking hands with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem during World War II. Translated into English, the poster reads, “Worldwide Association of Nazis and Islamists.”
“The fundamental argument is simply that having been radicalized into Nazism, it can be a pathway into militant jihadism, that once you succumb to one of those ideologies, it makes succumbing to the latter more easy, and that there’s a number of cases that bear that out,” Gartenstein-Ross testified during the trial.
“Individuals who gravitated from neo-Nazism to militant Islam connected the two in most cases explicitly in their own words through hatred of the Jews,” said Gartenstein Ross. “They talked about how militant Islam was a great way to combat global Zionism.”
Prosecutors portrayed Young as a homegrown extremist who was stockpiling weapons and making threatening statements, although he was charged with a nonviolent offense.
Defense lawyers said their client was an ISIS skeptic who got entrapped by agents in a misguided terror probe. They described Young as a patriotic, law-abiding libertarian gun owner whose Nazi belongings were part of a much larger collection of WWI and WWII artifacts. No evidence was presented at trial that he was an active member of any alt-right, neo-Nazi or white nationalist groups in the six years leading up to his arrest.
The Nazi items were irrelevant, Young’s lawyers said, since the case didn’t center on a hate crime. And besides, Young’s social circle included an array of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, according to letters from his friends and family submitted to the court.
During cross-examination of Gartenstein-Ross, Young’s attorneys pointed out that there is no peer-reviewed literature supporting his Nazi-Islam convergence thesis. The most comprehensive study of extremism in the United States, “Final Report: Empirical Assessment of Domestic Radicalization,” found a dearth of research on possible areas of overlap between the far right and militant Islam.
One of Young’s lawyers questioned Gartenstein-Ross about his use of eight case studies to draw a conclusion that Nazism can be a gateway to Islamist terror support.
Q. So you would agree that there are many neo-Nazis in the world, hundreds of thousands, if not more? Neo-Nazis or white supremacists?
Q. There are hundreds of thousands of examples?
Q. So if we wanted to, we could find eight neo-Nazis who are also eight carpenters, correct?
A. Yes, but it —
Q. But we could also find eight neo-Nazis who are plumbers?
Q. And we could find eight neo-Nazis who are also violinists, correct?
A. I have no information on whether there are eight neo-Nazis who are violinists.
Q. Given the statistics, given the big numbers, we could probably find eight neo-Nazis who are also each one of these categories, right?
A. That’s correct.
Q. On that basis alone, would you establish a convergence between violinists and neo-Nazism?
A. Not unless they said: I’m a plumber, and that was absolutely essential to me becoming a neo-Nazi.
The jury was not persuaded by the defense. After a six-day trial, the jurors returned guilty verdicts on one count of material support and two counts of obstruction of justice. Judge Leonie M. Brinkema sentenced Young to 15 years in prison.
“Your case is particularly troublesome because we not only have the specific crimes for which you were convicted, but there’s this other additional evidence that strikes the Court as indicating that there is a real danger from someone like yourself,” Brinkema told Young during the sentencing hearing.
Young’s attorneys have filed an appeal, laying out a list of perceived trial errors. Questioning the credibility of Mo’s testimony, the defense reminds the court that he admitted he had previously lied to the FBI and he made an unauthorized audio recording while working on the case. Oral argument is set for Thursday.
The appeal highlights a message exchange that suggests investigators were frustrated with the pace of the probe and eager to make an arrest. Two agents discussed Mo’s ISIS gift card request in a way that belied the seriousness of a material support charge, according to Young’s attorneys.
Agent A: “Let’s hope he goes 1 more step further”
Agent B: “just 1 more step”
Agent A: “1 huge step !!!!”
Agent B: “1 small step for (the FBI’s counterterrorism section), 1 giant leap for Slow Decline.”