ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man is charged with providing material support to the Islamic State extremist group, including attempting to buy multiple weapons and scouting potential targets for an attack in the Tampa Bay area, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
A criminal complaint charges Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen, with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. The charge carries a potential 20-year prison term.
A public defender listed in court records for Al-Azhari said the government's charges in the case unfairly attempt to portray him as a terrorist.
“The allegations misunderstand both the law and the evidence," said the public defender, Samuel Landes, in an emailed statement. “I’m thankful that in this country everyone enjoys a presumption of innocence, and I look forward to Mr. Al-Azhari’s day in court before a jury of his peers."
An FBI affidavit says Al-Azhari was recorded as expressing admiration for Omar Mateen, the deceased shooter at the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016, and even drove there to scope out the location. In a conversation with a confidential informant, the FBI says, Al-Azhari said “that's how I want to die, to be honest.”
The informant then asked how many people Al-Azhari wanted to kill.
“I don’t want to take four or five, no. I want to take at least 50,” Al-Azhari replied on the recording, according to the affidavit. “You know like, brother Omar Mateen in Orlando did. He took 49 with him.”
The affidavit also details how Al-Azhari negotiated with an undercover FBI employee to purchase a variety of guns and silencers, including an AK-47-style rifle. He was arrested Sunday after taking possession of weapons allegedly to be used in an attack.
“We are grateful for the hard work and swift action by our law enforcement partners and concerned citizens during this investigation,” said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez, whose district includes Tampa. “Their coordination and cooperation in this matter allowed us to interrupt a serious threat, without harm to anyone.”
According to the affidavit, Al-Azhari scouted a number of targets in the Tampa Bay region, including beaches, parks and even the Tampa FBI field office. He also allegedly rehearsed what he would say when carrying out an attack, some of which was intercepted by electronic surveillance on May 16.
“Know America. Today is your emergency. Today we kill from you guys like you killed from us," he is overheard saying, according to the affidavit. “This is a revenge for Muslims.”
Court-ordered searches of Al-Azhari's iPhone also revealed numerous videos and statements attributed to the Islamic State group. Another video, the FBI says, shows Al-Azhari in a facemask and pointing a gun at presumably someone on the floor.
“Hey you, get on the floor. Get on the floor now. Don’t you move, don’t you move, I’m telling you, I will kill you," he says on the video.
Al-Azhari had previously been convicted in Saudi Arabia in 2015 of terror-related crimes, including attempting to join a terrorist group. He served three years in prison in Saudi Arabia and then was deported to the U.S., according to the FBI. He lived in California and since 2019 in the Tampa area.
A key to the case was an eBay transaction in which Al-Hazhari purchased weapons parts from someone in Texas. The package was halted by the U.S. Postal Service and eBay flagged the purchase. The seller then provided FBI agents with details about the deal and the Postal Service seized the package.