By Iman Malik
The Joint Terrorism Task Force (“JTTF”) of the FBI’s Minneapolis Division has arrested an ISIS-linked Pakistani doctor and former Mayo Clinic research coordinator on a terrorism charge, after prosecutors say he told remunerated FBI informants that he had pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State group and wanted to carry out “lone wolf” attacks within the United States.
Muhammad Masood, aged 28, was arrested March 19 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (MSP) by FBI special agents as he was about to board a Southwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles, California. He was charged on one count of attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization (“FTO”) representing the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (“ISIS”)–in violation of Title 18, United States Code, § 2339B.
According to the affidavit filed by the FBI, United States of America v. Muhammad Masood in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, Masood was a licensed medical practitioner when he lived in Pakistan. He currently lives in the U.S. and has been residing in the U.S. for around two years. He holds an H-1B U.S. Visa and a Pakistani passport.
The FBI initiated an investigation in January, 2020, based on information indicating encrypted Social Media Platform (SMP) user “BB” was planning to provide material support to ISIS, having pledged his allegiance to the group and its leader, and by requesting assistance on making Hijra (migration). The encrypted SMP user “BB” (hereinafter referenced as BB) is Masood. Prosecutors say the facts set forth in the court affidavit are based on a pool of information provided by two reliable Confidential Human Sources (referred as “CHS-1” and “CH-2” individually and “CHSs” collectively). This pool of information includes recordings of conversations between the two CHSs, of other law enforcement officers, and several reviews by the FBI special agents. Additionally, the information also includes computer records related to BB’s investigation and his communications with others containing personal knowledge of the events and circumstances.
On January 24, 2020, BB contacted CHS-1 and discussed the Khilafah (Islamic caliphate) and al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (Islamic state) with CHS-1. BB told CHS-1 that BB wanted to make Hijra to al-Sham (modern day Syria), Iraq, or perhaps Khurasan (an ancient geographical description starting in the northeastern region of Iran stretching into Afghanistan). BB pledged allegiance or “Bayat” (oath of allegiance) to ISIS and its leader and discussed his desire to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS by carrying out “lone wolf” attacks within the U.S. Between BB’s initial contact with CHSs, until his arrest, BB held several conversations with CHS-1 and CHS-2 exclusively and jointly. BB believed that both CHS-1 and CHS-2 were members of ISIS who would help facilitate his travel to Syria. In the records, BB referred to them both as “the brothers.” As BB is a doctor, he wanted to help mujahedeen on the ground, stating “inshAllah a person [sic] like me belongs on the frontline not anywhere else.” BB explained to CHS-1 that BB wanted to make Hijra because he “hates smiling at the passing kuffar (infidel) just to not make them suspicious.”
During one conversation, BB told CHS-1 that he wanted to leave by the end of February because BB’s parents would return in April and would not permit BB to leave the United States. BB revealed that he was forced to cut his beard short because of pressure from family and the “kuffar.” BB wanted to find an NGO (non-government organization) to officially document BB’s employment as a doctor. Via the SMP, BB provided CHS-1 a photograph of his Pakistani passport and told CHS-1 that his “real name” is Masood. BB’s passport picture and vital information matched Department of Homeland Security (DHS) records for H1-B Visa holders. According to DHS, he is a licensed medical doctor in Pakistan and entered the U.S. on February 18, 2018, which was consistent with BB having told CHS-1 that he had been in the U.S. for almost two years.
BB communicated via SMP with CHS-1 and relayed, “when I came here… wa Allahe even then it was just because I wanted to learn something that would be useful in Qital (combat, and is often used interchangeably with jihad)… that only kuffar teach civilians [sic] and only army teaches to army in Pakistan… that was my niyah (intention)…, and jihad is fard al ain (in Islamic law, refers to each Muslim’s legal obligations, in this context BB’s obligation to engage in jihad)…” BB added, “I want to go back and do engineering sometimes… make drones… istishhaddi (martyrdom seeker, referred to a suicide bomber) drones.” In the court affidavit, the FBI linguists have provided translations of certain Arabic words and phrases BB consistently used in his communications.
By the end of January 25, 2020, in a conversation with Masood (BB), CHS-1 told Masood “I will talk to the brothers and I will start working on hijrah process akhi (brother or my brother, a term of endearment between two Muslim males).” Masood affirmed, “ok inshAllah.” He asked the CHS-1 if “the brothers have travel plans arranged for him yet.” Masood wanted to make Hijrah without raising any suspicion and while concealing his true intents from the U.S. authorities.
Masood further explained that he will need weapons training when he joins ISIS and discussed the use of small drones that can be purchased online and transformed into “istishhaddi” (meaning martyr or suicide) drones for use in Syria or in the United States. He wanted his final destination to be Syria because he believed, “may be Qiyamah (the Day of judgement) is very close… and inshAllah i want to be part of the army that meets the Rum at Dabiq or Amaq (“Romans” or “Crusaders”) inshAllah… because if you don’t [sic] do jihad and don’t have intension to do jihad then you die on a branch of nifaq (hypocrisy).” Dabiq and Amaq is a battle that will precede the end times in jihadist ideology. CHS-1 told Masood “you are going to do hijrah akhi to dawla And you might have to kill people and this is critical moment to you and your eman (Iman, referred as faith or belief) … So you might have to do this akhi and I don’t want you to think that akhi that I helped you with something that you are not sure about.” Masood responded to this question with the following statements:
“I want to kill and get killed… and kill and get killed”
“and again and again”
“this is what even Rasool Allah saas (peace be upon him) wished” (that is what the messenger of Allah [peace be upon him] wishes)
“even though Allah said waAlkah yasimuka min naas” (and Allah will protect you from the people)
Masood discussed via SMP the process by which ISIS recruits foreign fighters. Masood told CHS-1 “you know [brother]… there is so much I wanted to do here…lon wulf [sic] stuff you know… but I realized I should be on the ground helping brothers sisters kids inshAllah.” Masood was referring to his desire to conduct “lone wolf” terrorist attacks within the United States.
On February 19, 2020, Masood traveled from Rochester, Minn., and Bloomington, Minn., to meet with CHS-1 and CHS-2 (the individual Masood believes to be an ISIS commander located overseas) for his recruiting interview with CHS-2. The interactions between CHSs and Masood were recorded. Masood discussed his traveling logistics to Jordan and subsequently into the ISIS territory. He requested a fabricated Visa to keep his identity clean for future travel after joining ISIS. In the interview, CHS-2 asked Masood how Masood found Dawla. Masood explained he was in search of truth and started listening to Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki. A Colorado State University and George Washington University alum, Al-Awlaki was a Yemeni-American imam at a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia.
According to U.S. government officials, being a senior recruiter and motivator, al-Awlaki was centrally involved in planning terrorist operations for al-Qaeda. Al-Awlaki preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers, who were al-Qaeda affiliates. Nidal Malik Hasan, a former American Army Major convicted of killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 others in the Fort Hood mass shooting on November 5, 2009, was also associated to al-Awlaki. Alongside, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Awlaki had a series of conversations in al-Qaeda safe houses in Yemen with a young Nigerian volunteer, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, widely known as the “Underwear Bomber,” to prepare him for a “martyrdom mission” to bomb the Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day, 2009. Al-Awlaki was killed by a U.S, drone strike ordered by President Obama in 2011. With a blog, a Facebook page, the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire, and many YouTube videos, the Saudi news stations described al-Awlaki as the “Bin Laden of the Internet.” According to the New York Times, al-Awlaki’s public statements and videos have been more influential in aspiring acts of terrorism after his killing.
Through al-Awlaki’s lectures, Masood learned that al-Dawla al-Islamiyya in Iraq was the beacon of truth. Masood said, “if you want to learn the haqq (truth), you have to see which direction the kuffar’s arrows are pointing so that’s how I found Dawla”. Masood told CHS-2, “after coming to the United States he has seen how the kuffar are and now understands them better.” He told CHS-2 that he wanted to be a combat medic, and had been ready to go for some time. Masood said he was “sick of this place” (referring to living in the United States).
However, the global Coronavirus pandemic sabotaged Masood’s arranged voyage to Syria. In February, Masood had purchased a plane ticket from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, to Amman, Jordan, scheduled for March 22, 2020, where Masood planned to meet members of ISIS. Masood shared his itinerary with CHS-1 along with the imagery of symbolic monochrome ISIS flag adorned with Arabic lettering. In the interim, Masood sold his personal belongings online including a mattress, show rack, clothing drying rack, and office chair via his Gmail account email@example.com. He lent a rental vacation notice to his landlord and communicated a resignation notice to Mayo Clinic indicating his final day of employment would be March 17, 2020.
On March 14, 2020, the Government of Jordan announced new measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak and stopped all incoming flights into the country, then closed all land and sea borders. Shortly after the Jordanian government’s decision, Masood contacted CHS-1 about the urgent need to make changes to his travel itinerary. On March 16, Masood, along with CHS-1, developed a plan to fly from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Los Angles to meet up with CHS-1 who would assist Masood with travel via a cargo ship from a port in California, departing the United States in approximately two weeks, for him to eventually join ISIS.
On March 19, 2020, the FBI’s special agents conducting physical surveillance watched Masood board a shuttle bus in Rochester, Minnesota that drove him to MSP Terminal 2. ISIS-inspired Masood walked to the ticket counter at Terminal 2 where he checked his luggage through to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). With the boarding pass in his possession, he then proceeded directly through a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Checkpoint — where Masood’s mission to join ISIS was effectively thwarted by the FBI ’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (“JTTF”).
Masood’s LinkedIn profile with his picture delineates his schools and work history. He acquired his Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (M.B.B.S) degree in 2016 from Riphah International University in Islamabad, Pakistan, chartered by the Federal Government of Pakistan. According to Riphah University’s webpage, the university was established with a view to produce professionals with Islamic moral and ethical values. From April 2016 to September 2016, he worked in the Pakistan Railway Hospital in the departments of Anesthesiology and Pediatrics respectively. Between November 2016 to April 2017, Masood worked as a House Officer at the Federal Government Polyclinic Post-Graduate Medical Institute in (PGMI) in Islamabad. From October 2017 to January 2018, he worked as a senior medical officer at the Government of Punjab’s primary and secondary healthcare department in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He then joined Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., as a research trainee from February 2018 to May 2019. Masood was working as a clinical research coordinator two days prior to his arrest. Mayo Clinic spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said Masood formerly worked at the medical center, but “was not employed by Mayo Clinic at the time of his arrest.”
Masood’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew R. Winter and Timothy C. Rank, with assistance from Trial Attorney Katie Sweeten of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section. If Masood is proven guilty, the charge carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
Iman Malik is Senior International Security and Defense Policy expert based in Washington D.C.