A Fremont web developer who allegedly tried to join a terrorist group in Syria has been indicted by a federal grand jury, prosecutors announced Thursday.
Adam Shafi stands accused of providing material support to the al-Nusrah Front, a Sunni Islamic cell linked to al-Qaeda. The “material support” he’s accused of providing is himself. Here's a link to the indictment.
The 22-year-old pleaded not guilty to the terrorism charge in a San Francisco federal court, where he returns next week for a bail hearing. If convicted, he could face 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Federal agents arrested Shafi on July 3, days after he tried to board a nonstop flight from San Francisco International Airport to Istanbul, Turkey, prosecutors said. Turkey is a common point of entry to Syria for foreigners looking to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to an affidavit authored by San Jose-based FBI agent Christopher Monika.
Court records unsealed Thursday—and available here—indicate that Shafi made a number of phone calls to friends leading up to his attempted departure to express his fealty to the al-Nusrah Front, his willingness to “die with them” and his progress in saving up money for the trip.
“I just hope Allah doesn’t take my soul until I have at least, like, a couple gallons of blood that I’ve spilled for him,” he allegedly told a friend in a wiretapped phone call weeks before his arrest.
Shafi’s attorney said his client is innocent. It should be noted, he said, that prosecutors have not charged him with any violent crimes, but with intent to join a terrorist group.
“There is no evidence that he was planning to do anything but fly to Istanbul, which is where he had been the year before for two days where he attempted to help refugees and returned home,” criminal defense attorney Joshua Dratel said. “There is no statement by him that he was intending to go to Syria or join any designated terrorist group. He told agents more than once that he was not flying to Istanbul to join any terrorist organization, and there’s no evidence to the contrary.”
Federal agents kept tabs on him for a year, he added. They interviewed his family, searched his luggage at the airport on two occasions and still failed to find evidence of an offense, Dratel said.
Shafi initially caught the FBI’s attention in August 2014, when Monika says he “disappeared” on a family trip to Cairo, prompting his family to notify the U.S. Embassy. He later sent a text message to his dad, Sal Shafi, indicating that he had gone to “protect Muslims.” Agent Monika said that Shafi’s father had been worried for some time that his son had been radicalized on the Internet.
“Adam’s father was disturbed because Adam was always ‘grieving about what is happening to Muslims,’” Monika wrote in his affidavit. “Adam’s father was also concerned that Adam may have been following extreme imams online and that some of his high school friends were of the same mindset.”
Though Shafi reunited with his family and returned to the Bay Area a couple weeks later, the FBI began spying on him and wiretapping his phone calls.
Three months later, in December 2014, FBI agents watching Shafi at his family’s upscale two-story Fremont home saw him leading his two younger brothers on a “paramilitary style” workout, running through the neighborhood and crawling through the mud at a local park.
In phone calls secretly recorded by Monika this past June, Shafi allegedly told a friend that he’s drawn to the al-Nusrah Front’s “less bloodthirsty,” more “nuanced” approach to jihad. During one 79-minute phone call, Shafi allegedly criticized ISIS for its indiscriminate violence, including toward the al-Nusfrah Front.
Later that month, Shafi allegedly called another friend to talk about saving enough money for a plane ticket, rings and a dowry. The affidavit says the pair also brought up the idea of going to Myanmar, where anti-Muslim tensions have erupted in violence.
“The only thing about going to Burma [Myanmar] is I really wanted to kill some frickin’ people that were supporting America or American soldiers or something,” Shafi allegedly said.
“Bro, they’re chopping up Muslims,” his friend allegedly responded. “If that doesn’t boil your heart then what else will?”
Less than a week later, Shafi arrived at SFO, where his flight was delayed. A passenger told airport officials that Shafi was acting “suspicious” and didn’t feel comfortable flying with him. The passenger said he appeared nervous, that his leg was shaking, that he was alternately mumbling and reading aloud to himself and frequently removing and wiping his glasses.
TSA officials whisked Shafi away to a private interview room. Shafi allegedly told them that he no longer wanted to live in the United States, partly because of the Supreme Court ruling that upheld same-sex marriage and because he wanted to live among people who shared his religious beliefs.
The TSA escorted him out of the airport to the BART station. In a secretly reported phone call later that night, Shafi told a relative that he lied during the interrogation, according to Monika. He told his relative about Monika asking if he planned to join a terrorist group.
“I was like, what the hell? Do you think I was going to say yes?” Shafi allegedly said. “What kind of idiot would say yes?”
A half-hour later, Shafi called a second person, possibly another relative, to talk about how he got stopped because someone in the crowd suspected he was a terrorist.
“Friggen’ hell what do you think I’m going to say, yes?” Shafi reportedly said. “Even if I was going to do that, what the hell?”
The person on the other line asked if he could say over the phone where he was going.
“You know where I was going … I was going to Turkey?” Shafi replied, according to Monika.
Shafi’s attorney said his client wanted only to help Syrian refugees and that the accusations do not fit his character.
“This case also represents a perfect opportunity for the government to make good on its professed commitment to finding another way other than criminal prosecution to address instances of young Muslims being motivated by the humanitarian crisis in Syria to act in some way to alleviate that suffering,” he told San Jose Inside in an email. “That is what motivated Adam Shafi, and his intentions were never criminal nor violent, but instead sought to assist Syrian refugees that the world does not seem ready to help in any comprehensive fashion.”
Shafi graduated from Mission San Jose High School in 2011. His father, Sal Shafi, is president of Santa Clara-based ESG Consulting.
According to NBC Bay Area, Shafi isn't the first South Bay resident hit with terrorism charges. In 2013, federal agents arrested 28-year-old San Jose resident Matthew Adam Llaneza for participating in a plot to bomb an Oakland bank. Turned out, the bomb was fake. The case raised questions about the FBI's tactics and whether its counterterrorism stings cross the line into entrapment.