Federal authorities arrested a Brooklyn driver early Monday on charges of attempting to support ISIS just days before the annual Thanksgiving parade in New York that was the subject of a recent threat in an Islamic State magazine.
A criminal complaint alleges that Mohamed Rafik Naji, 37, a legal permanent U.S. resident and citizen of Yemen, discussed a plot to try to conduct a Nice-style attack using a garbage truck to mow down people in Times Square.
Naji was seized at his apartment on Clarendon Road in Flatbush in a multi-agency arrest. Authorities said he worked as a driver for Uber, though the company told NBC4 that he didn’t work for them.
According to the unsealed complaint, Naji began sounding off on Facebook about his support for ISIS beginning in 2014 soon after the group’s declaration of their caliphate. He even made an ISIS image the cover photo on his Facebook page.
From March to September 2015, Naji traveled to Turkey and Yemen “in an effort to join ISIL.” After flying from JFK airport to Istanbul, Naji emailed his girlfriend back in the United States, telling her, “Everything ok so far I met this taxi guy look like a good guy he said he’s gonna take me short cut almost there inshallah I love u hunny so much.”
Naji allegedly followed up in another email to his girlfriend six days later after trying to access ISIS-controlled parts of Yemen, complaining “it’s very hard to get in I’m on my 5 try.” Two days after that, the complaint states, he told his girlfriend that he and his party “almost got killed today by army” and were hiding in the mountains without food or water — “glad u didn’t come.” He emailed his girlfriend a photo of jihadists on their trek, followed by an admission that he was “thinking of coming back m really really tired.”
In April 2015, the court document continues, Naji sent his girlfriend a selfie in which he was wearing all black clothing and a tactical vest with a long knife tucked inside. A few days later, he sent a “first day on the job” email with a video of an apparent gunfight.
In May 2015, the girlfriend asked if it was good that she didn’t come along, according to the complaint. Naji reportedly complained that “it’s good and it’s bad,” with spotty Wi-Fi falling into the latter category.
He asked her multiple times to transfer money to a contact of his in Yemen, which she did, authorities say.
Naji was also communicating with an FBI source through Facebook. He flew back to the U.S. on a plane originating in Djibouti and connecting in Qatar on Sept. 12, 2015. He eventually met the confidential source in New York and they discussed on multiple occasions how the source could join ISIS as well as heading to the Islamic State together, the complaint continues.
In July, the conversation turned close to home as they allegedly discussed an attack on Times Square in the style of June’s Bastille Day massacre in Nice, France. Naji suggested using a garbage truck as a deadly weapon, says the document, and said “they want an operation in Times Square.”
The FBI source asked him to clarify. “They want an operation in Times Square, reconnaissance group already put out a scene, the Islamic State already put up scenes of Times Square, you understand. I said that was an indication for whoever is smart to know,” Naji said, according to the complaint.
His defense attorney, Susan Kellman, told CBS2 that “his travel was immediately suspect in the view of our government,” but “the fact that he has family over there and three children didn’t seem to affect the government one way or the other, but he certainly had legitimate reasons to be over there.”
In a statement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Naji’s arrest is “a sharp reminder of the evolving threat of global 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.”