March 21, 2018
There are two different stories about Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, the 20-year-old Mississauga man who faces life in prison for plotting to blow up New York’s Times Square and subway system.
His family, friends and Canadian lawyer — who have broken their silence to plead for leniency — say El Bahnasawy was not a violent extremist, but a teenager struggling with mental illness and drug addictions when an undercover FBI informant set him up.
It was not members of the so-called Islamic State who devised the bombing plot, they argue, but the FBI who operated an overzealous sting operation, a frequent criticism of the American police force since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“Obviously, the Islamic State are horrible people and I think everybody sees them as the enemy,” said El Bahnasawy’s sister, Basma, in an interview with Star. “But … it was the FBI who were the ones who manipulated my brother to actually try and go there and do whatever crime they wanted him to do.”
U.S. prosecutors say otherwise.
“El Bahnasawy worked to support ISIS for an extended period, from late 2015 until his arrest in May 2016,” wrote prosecutor Geoffrey Berman in his 172-page submission to a New York federal court, referring to the group also known as Daesh, ISIL and the “Islamic State.”
“He planned and plotted for more than a month to carry out the NYC attack. As his actions and communications demonstrated in chilling and explicit terms, El Bahnasawy was a proud and devoted supporter of a global terrorist organization dedicated to murdering non-believers in the West.”
Exactly what was said in online chatrooms and encrypted social media apps between El Bahnasawy and a well-known recruiter for Daesh as well as the FBI informant is unknown. Many of the court documents are sealed and news of El Bahnasawy’s arrest and guilty plea only emerged months after secret hearings had been held in New York.
A New York judge will decide April 9.
In exclusive interviews with the Star and CBC, El Bahnasawy’s family and friends spoke about El Bahnasway’s biopolar disorder, his struggles with drug addiction and the police takedown when he was arrested in New Jersey during a family vacation. They ask why police would pursue and encourage a mentally ill teenager, rather than intervening at the start.
El Bahnasawy’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, alleges the FBI entrapped his client and that the RCMP illegally obtained El Bahnasawy’s medical records and provided them to the Americans so they could profile their target.
Court records reveal faxes were sent between Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the RCMP’s national security division that showed that El Bahnasaway had been treated at CAMH between June and October 2014.
Edney also accuses the RCMP of colluding with the FBI to ensure El Bahnasawy would be tried in the U.S. because it is rare for a case to be thrown out south of the border on what’s known as an “agent provocateur” defence that strives to prove the accused would not have committed the crime if an undercover agent had not told them what to do.
The RCMP would not comment on the case nor respond to Edney’s allegations.
U.S. prosecutors write in their sentencing submission that they were unaware that El Bahnasawy is mentally ill and had spent time at CAMH. Even if that were known, the prosecution writes, it is irrelevant.
“Whether the FBI also learned during its investigation that El Bahnasawy might have mental health or addiction issues is simply immaterial. Indeed, it is likely that such potential mental instability only heightened the threat that El Bahnasawy posed to this country.”
Basma El Bahnasawy believes that if her brother had had proper treatment, he would not be in jail. “We can only do so much. We’re not mental health professionals,” she said.
She said El Bahnasawy was open to getting help and had benefited from his treatment in the CAMH youth ward in 2014, when he was 16, but that since then, the family had faced long waiting lists for mental health services.
In the spring of 2016, they had finally secured an appointment with a psychiatrist. It was scheduled for May 24, what turned out to be three days after El Bahnasawy’s arrest. Before then, his parents announced a family road trip to New York.
“This was a surprise for him,” Khadija Metwally, El Bahnasawy’s mother, said. The family didn’t know that El Bahnasawy was communicating with the undercover informant and allegedly planned to meet during the holiday.
When the family pulled into a New Jersey hotel parking lot that first night, they were surrounded by three cars and 10 agents dressed in black. “My mom actually thought they were gang members who were taking my brother out of the car,” Basma said. “She ran to them and she was trying to pull them away.”
The FBI identified themselves but would not answer any questions. “Did he hack someone’s computer? Was it something he did in Canada?” she asked. “We’d literally just crossed the border, so what could he have done since we crossed the border eight hours ago?”
Basma said her brother was calm. “He didn’t resist or anything.”
The next day, El Bahnasawy’s family met with public defender Sabrina Shroff. She told them the charges, including: conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and conspiracy to bomb a public place.
The room went silent.
“We were so shocked,” Basma said. “At one point, I didn’t even hear what she was saying anymore.”
The family knew El Bahnasawy had drug addictions and mental health issues. Much of their lives revolved around seeking treatment for him. As a child in Kuwait, El Bahnasawy was bullied, so he was happy when his family moved to Canada. But by 15, he had renounced his Muslim faith, became atheist and cared about little else other than getting high.
His parents believed there was easy access to drugs in Canada, and moved the family back to Kuwait. But El Bahnasawy’s addiction got worse. When he couldn’t find marijuana, he turned to cough syrups, codeine and eventually butane inhalants, such as air fresheners. “For four or five months, Abdulrahman used inhalants everyday. When intoxicated, Abdulrahman began hearing a voice talking to him through a fan,” a defence document states. He had other hallucinations, including feeling he was being flushed down the toilet.
Eventually, he became addicted to heroin.
When they returned to Canada, his parents enrolled El Bahnasawy, who still identified as an atheist, in an Islamic school. He was soon kicked out and started going to a private school. Although he had stopped taking illegal drugs, by Grade 11 he had also stopped taking the medication treating his biopolar disorder, saying it made him gain weight and feel listless. Soon after, he dropped out of school.
Basma said he was a “different person” when off the medication. “When you would speak to him and try to communicate with him, it almost felt like there was a bubble in front of him.”
Before his arrest, his mother, Metwally, was actually happy her son had stopped going out. She liked having him close, she said, not on the streets where he could find drugs and relapse.
They had no idea what he was doing online. And might never know.
The conversations the took place between El Bahnasawy and the FBI informant or Daesh members remain under seal, so there is no public record as to exactly when the FBI become involved.
El Bahnasway pleaded guilty 18 months ago, while represented by Shroff, the public defender. If he was given any consideration for his plea — such as a more lenient sentence or agreement that he could serve his time in Canada — it is not reflected in the sentencing submissions filed in court. Shroff would not comment on the case.
The prosecution’s submission states that El Bahnasawy was in contact online with a well-known Daesh recruiter who went by the kunya, or nickname, of Abu Isa Al Amriki. Although his name indicates that he was “the American,” he was in fact Sudanese and is referred to in court documents as “Al Sudani.”
“In approximately late 2015 or early 2016, El Bahnasawy began communicating regularly with Al Sudani, a high-level ISIS recruiter and attack planner … who played a key role in radicalizing El Bahnasawy,” prosecutors state. Al Sudani reportedly told El Bahnasawy to send $500 and a cellphone to contacts which, according to the submission, he did.
Prosecutors say El Bahnasawy helped facilitate connections with other recruiters and members of Daesh. By early 2016, he was communicating with Al Sudani about the New York plot. During this time, prosecutors allege, El Bahnasawy was in contact with two other men: Talha Haroon, an American based in Pakistan and also, the undercover informant. (Haroon was arrested in September 2016 and his case remains ongoing).
According to the court documents, El Bahnasawy wrote to the FBI informant: “Americans need an attack,” and that he aspired to create “the next 9/11.”
He shipped bomb-making material to the informant in Ohio, including hydrogen peroxide. There was another man who Al Sudani introduced to El Bahnasawy. “Abu Khalid,” a Philippine citizen, was arrested in April 2017 and hearings to extradite him to the U.S. continue.
Al Sudani, who was reportedly based in Syria, was killed in a drone strike by coalition forces on April 22, 2016, the court documents state.
That El Bahnasawy communicated online with Daesh members — or those he believed were part of the terrorist organization — is not in dispute.
But El Bahnasawy’s family wants to know why police would target a vulnerable teenager, going so far as to encourage him to ship bomb-making material to the U.S., instead of alerting them so they could intervene.
Studies done by the New America Foundation and Human Rights Watch, among others, have raised similar concerns about the use of FBI informants. Peter Bergen, author of United States of Jihad, argues in his book that the FBI has organized more terrorist plots in the U.S. than any other organization. When his book was published in 2015 — before a surge of new cases — Bergen put the number at about 30 for the FBI, compared to Al Qaeda’s nine.
“ISIS is trying to make you radical to go and do something against America,” says Edney, “And you’ve got America, through the FBI saying, ‘Hey, we agree with that, and why don’t you come across the border? And by the way, we’ll tell you what bomb-making (materials) we need so we can arrest you for it.”
Edney, who represented former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr, is calling on the RCMP to disclose their involvement in the investigation.
Two years ago, a justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court accused the RCMP of “manufacturing the crime” in the terrorism case of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, both methadone addicted and developmentally challenged. “Simply put, the world has enough terrorists,” Justice Catherine Bruce wrote. “We do not need the police to create more out of marginalized people who have neither the capacity nor sufficient motivation to do it themselves.”
Prosecutors dismiss any notion that El Bahnasawy was targeted because he was low-hanging fruit — a mentally ill teenager off his medication.
“The FBI did not choose El Bahnasawy; he chose himself when he decided to join the ranks of ISIS,” the prosecution states, adding that the undercover informant only infiltrated the group after El Bahnasawy had contacted Al Sudani so he was already an “operational terrorist plotting and planning.”
Basma, 21, attends York University and works two part-time jobs but visits her brother every other week at the New York prison. “I think it’s very important that I visit my brother because I’m the closest to him and right now, I would say that he’s the youngest one in the place that he’s at.”
His parents visit every weekend. “He is depressed and doesn’t have much hope in life,” said Osama, El Bahnasawy’s father. “We give him hope, encouragement.”
During visits, the family is permitted to sit in front of him and touch him. But phone time is minimal — at one point, he was only allowed 15 minutes per month. They encouraged him to get his high-school diploma, which he did, but are concerned about his mental health, especially because of the time he spent in solitary confinement. “Whenever I would talk to him, his thinking would be slower,” Basma said. “It was very obvious that isolation affected him.”
El Bahnasawy has tried to commit suicide twice and his family fears for his life. “He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know how I can get outside again, there are only walls around me. I feel damaged’,” Metwally said.
Basma remains optimistic and hopes her brother will get another chance. “He can finish his education, get his university degree… get the mental health help he needs,” she said.
“All I can do is have hope in the justice system, have hope in the judge, I hope he sees who my brother really is.”
Prosecutors are asking for life in prison.
El Bahnasawy is now represented by American lawyers, Jason Wright and Andrew Frisch, and they are asking for the minimum sentence required by law, with the condition that he get mandatory mental health treatment in Canada upon release.
They note that, according to a recent George Washington University Program on Extremism report, the average sentence for the past 157 U.S. terrorism cases was 13.6 years.
In a 24-page letter to the court, El Bahnasawy also asks for “a second chance.”
“I want to experience life away from any drugs and away from war and violence,” he writes. “I want a stable life and I want to stop having extreme turns that keep getting me in trouble, like my turn towards drugs or my turn towards jihad. I gave my family a very hard time in life and I wish I can make it up for them.”