Homeland Security

Virginia Man in Military-Heavy Area Was 'Moving Closer' to Committing ISIS Attack, Says FBI

Lionel Nelson Williams, 26, is led away in shackles after an appearance at U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., on Dec. 22, 2016. (Vicki Cronis-Nohe/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

A man living in the heart of Virginia’s military powerhouse area, who the FBI said purchased an AK-47 after the San Bernardino terrorist attack and was close to committing his own attack, has been charged with attempting to support ISIS.

Lionel Nelson Williams, 26, of Suffolk, Va., a Virginia-born U.S. citizen who also went by the name Harun Ash-Shababi, was arrested there Wednesday.

According to the affidavit, the FBI was tipped off in March that Williams was posting ISIS content and lectures from late al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki on his Facebook page — with Williams’ own commentary including “The Jihad (the struggle) doesn’t end just because it stops feeling good” — and had recently “acquired” an assault rifle.

“It’s time for me to take a stand. I stand with #Dawlah’. If that means you want nothing to do with me, then fine,” Williams publicly posted on his page in mid-March, leading the FBI to interpret this as a pledge of allegiance to ISIS. Four days later, he shared a video with the comment, “I love the Mujahideen the world over. Youtube/Facebook had the gall to delete it sometime ago, but somehow it’s been remade/reuploaded. Allahu Akhbar!”

He then “liked” a Facebook post from another user that said: “The lone wolf attacks are more beloved to us than the martyrdom operations. For the impact of the lone wolf attacks in the lands of the enemy cause more terror in their hearts and give them a taste of the havoc they rain upon our families in different Muslim lands! #KillThemWhereverYouFindThem.”

The FBI added that Williams “posted a comment in response to this post that expressed his support for the targeting of police officers, military, and armed civilians.”

Investigators found that Williams bought an AK-47 online the day after the San Bernardino terrorist attack, picked it up in mid-December from a gun store in Suffolk, and kept the gun on a dresser in his bedroom. In January, a neighbor complained to local police that he was doing target practice in a field near his house. FBI aerial surveillance in April spotted two people leaving Williams’ residence and firing guns on an outlying part of the property.

The affidavit says a person connected to the FBI friended Williams on Facebook in late April and set up a mid-May meeting when Williams said he would be in the D.C. area for Ramadan. “I can’t wait for the day that the black flag of Islam exists all over Maryland, D.C., Virginia, and Chicago,” Williams allegedly wrote.

Williams met with an undercover FBI agent in June and said “he had not carried out an attack because his grandmother is still alive and he needs to care for her,” the affidavit says. In August, he told the agent the “kuffar,” or disbelievers, were leaving him alone right now “because they don’t think I’m a threat, but I am a threat.”

Via a messaging app in September, Williams allegedly told the person connected to the FBI “the advent of Dawlah really gave my life a place and a purpose. It’s a home and example for the ummah [Muslim community].”

The FBI says Williams, armed with a handgun, met the undercover agent at a Hampton Roads location in October. After this meeting, Williams, who “had limited monetary means during this time period,” donated a $200 prepaid cash card to what he thought was purchasing an RPG for ISIS. He later sent $50 more, according to the affidavit.

Williams allegedly talked about marrying a woman located outside the United States, which he thought would assure his martyrdom if he carried out an attack. He planned to “empty some of my money towards the cause before I go.”

When the FBI-connected person asked Williams if he planned a local attack in the military-saturated region of coastal Virginia, he allegedly replied it was the “only way.”

The affidavit says the FBI believes he was “moving closer to committing an attack that would result in his death.”

Williams, who faces a Jan. 4 preliminary hearing, could spend up to 20 years behind bars.

A neighbor told The Virginian-Pilot that Williams, who lived in an apartment over a detached garage next to his grandmother’s home, converted to Islam a few years ago, and that he had given her husband some books on Islam after they had a debate about Islam and Christianity.

Still, the neighbor, Irene Stewart, questioned whether the FBI set him up. “He never gave me any doubt about him. They could have led him into it,” she said. “He is just so innocent.”