The following is an abridged excerpt from the forthcoming book “Homegrown: ISIS in America,” set to be released Nov. 12.
On the eve of Independence Day four years ago, a team of federal counterterrorism agents arrested a former National Guardsman outside of his house in Sterling, Virginia. Scouring media reporting on this arrest, there is very little to suggest that the arrest of this man, Mohamed Bailor Jalloh, was fundamentally different from any of the dozens of ISIS-inspired plots disrupted in the United States in the last half decade. On a closer look however, Jalloh’s case illustrates many of the difficulties faced by law enforcement in responding to the new jihadist threat in the United States, and the enormous amount of government resources that are devoted to stopping one individual with terrorist connections overseas and plans for violence at home.
Unlike most ISIS sympathizers in America, Jalloh had distinct advantages which would conventionally lead to a greater chance of attack success. Most importantly, Jalloh had military training from his stint in the Army National Guard. In the months leading up to his attack, he was in direct contact with a notorious ISIS operative, an overseas attack-planner known as Abu Sa’ad al-Sudani. Previously, Jalloh made an attempt to join an ISIS franchise while on a trip to West Africa, paying an ISIS convoy director to transport him across the Sahara Desert to ISIS-held territory in Libya. Right before he reached his destination, however, he bailed out on the trip and returned to the United States.
For the FBI employees from the Washington Field Office tasked with Jalloh’s investigation and apprehension, discovering that these factors were in play brought an understandable level of urgency to the case. In a wide-reaching interview, FBI Special Agents assigned to the Jalloh case told us about the investigative process, the split-second decisions they were forced to take, and why this case, out of the multitude of ISIS-related cases in their area of responsibility during the past five years, was the one that “kept them up at night.”
While the FBI investigated Jalloh’s previous attempts to join ISIS, they worked with local police and Joint Terrorism Task Force officers from the US Army to gain more insight into Jalloh and his motivations. Even after this review, they still felt that the information that they had was not sufficient to bring a material support for terrorism charge that would stick in court. Their only choice was to continue surveillance and hope to detect “out of pattern” behaviors which could indicate that Jalloh was about to commit a crime. As the FBI special agent put it: “There’s out of pattern behavior like, ‘he went to The Cheesecake Factory instead of Legal Seafoods,’ and then there’s out of pattern behavior like, ‘he’s talking to ISIS guys and just went to a gun store.’”
Agents found a saving grace: Jalloh worked long shifts as an unarmed security guard and was an excellent employee. They could rely on the fact that Jalloh would typically be at work from early in the morning until late at night, limiting the window of time he could use to commit an attack. In one out-of-pattern incident during the investigation, Jalloh drove to Dulles International Airport. Fearing that he was on his way to travel back to ISIS-controlled territory, FBI agents jumped into action, but pulled back when they realized that he was there to pick up family members who arrived on a flight from Sierra Leone.
On July 1, 2017, an FBI surveillance team clocked Mohamed Bailor Jalloh entering a gun store in Virginia, taking an assault rifle off the wall and handling it while talking to employees. He eventually left the store without purchasing the firearm, but the Joint Terrorism Task Force went into high alert. The next morning, before the store formally opened, agents from the Washington Field Office entered and interviewed staff about what had transpired. Those who interacted with Jalloh told agents that he did not have all the proper paperwork to purchase the gun and would be returning the next day with everything in hand. “Please tell me this guy isn’t some kind of terrorist,” another employee allegedly asked FBI agents while reviewing store surveillance videos of Jalloh handling the rifle the day after. After a lack of response from the agents, he simply muttered, “. . . oh shit.”
As anticipated, Jalloh returned on July 2 to purchase the firearm. The store’s employees kept their cool and sold Jalloh a Stag Arms AR-15 that had been rendered inoperable. During the entirety of the July 4 weekend, the Washington Field Office agents, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, were already filing the warrants, affidavits, and other paperwork necessary to apprehend Jalloh. The case capped off a run of high-profile material support cases in the Washington Field Office’s area of responsibility. FBI Special Agents said that due to how much time the Joint Terrorism Task Force spent on these cases, the field office decided to arrange a “spouse’s appreciation picnic” for the July 4 weekend. “But then the Jalloh case picked up a week before, and everyone was so crushed. The last thing we needed was for people’s spouses to come in to the office, so we canceled the picnic and decided to make it ‘spend time with your family day.’” That plan didn’t come to fruition either: “When we heard Jalloh went to the gun store, we had to cancel that too.”
In the early morning hours of July 3, as Mohamed Bailor Jalloh was leaving his house on a cul-de-sac in Sterling to drive to work, a fleet of Chevrolet Suburbans swarmed in and closed off the street. An FBI SWAT team emerged from the blockade, and Jalloh quickly surrendered without incident. FBI Special Agents executed search warrants on Jalloh’s house and car, where they discovered the magnitude of what Jalloh was planning to do with his newly acquired assault rifle. “When we got a search warrant for his Google search history, we found searches for ‘Omar Mateen,’ ‘which kinds of rounds should I use for maximum damage,’ and ‘4th of July Veterans Parade.’” Had Jalloh successfully carried out this attack on the well-attended veterans parade on the Fourth of July in Washington, DC, it would have been a potentially deadly addition to the 23 jihadist-inspired attacks on U.S. soil between 2014 and 2019.
“I didn’t sleep a lot during the three months of the Jalloh investigation,” one seasoned FBI agent told us. “There’s a lot of times where we’re busy and don’t sleep a lot, but this time I couldn’t get to sleep because I was worried about what could happen. This case kept me up at night.” Mohamed Bailor Jalloh was eventually charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIS. In October 2016, he pleaded guilty; in February 2017 a judge sentenced him to 11 years in federal prison — slightly under the average sentence for most people charged with material support. “My only hope,” the FBI agent who investigated Jalloh told us, “is that Mohamed can make it through his prison sentence and come out as a functioning member of society. If that happens, nobody will be happier than me.”
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is the research director of the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University. Seamus Hughes is the deputy director of the program. Bennett Clifford is a senior research fellow at the program.
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