Ypsilanti suspect linked to Islamic State group

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — An Ypsilanti man arrested by the FBI’s counterterrorism team in August said he was an Islamic State supporter, admitting he made pipe bombs and watched terrorist propaganda videos, according to federal records obtained by The Detroit News.

Yousef Mohammad Ramadan also boasted that committing a terrorist attack in the United States is easy compared to overseas.

Search warrant records offer new insight into a counterterrorism investigation shrouded in secrecy and help explain why Ramadan was removed from a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight in August at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The records also reveal Ramadan is at the center of the latest counter-terrorism investigation involving a Metro Detroit supporter of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. His arrest in late August came days before terror suspect Sebastian Gregerson was sentenced to federal prison.

“It is not uncommon for someone to be so fervent in their beliefs to boast and talk about it,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, who has interviewed numerous people tied to the Islamic State. “They are not shy.”

Ramadan, 28, has not been charged with a terrorism-related crime and the status of the investigation was unclear Wednesday. The filings came more than a month after the former security guard was indicted on two counts of knowingly possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number, a five-year felony.

He is being held without bond.

FBI spokesman Tim Wiley declined comment.

“We will be filing a written response to the defense motion,” said Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.

Dozens of pages of search warrant records were filed in federal court Wednesday in a bid by Ramadan’s legal team to suppress evidence seized during the investigation and statements the man made while being questioned by investigators. His court-appointed lawyers allege Ramadan was assaulted by investigators and denied access to an attorney.

Ramadan was trying to fly from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to Amman, Jordan, on Aug. 15 with the ultimate destination of Israel, his lawyer wrote in a filing Wednesday. Before the plane could depart, investigators searched his checked baggage.

Inside, investigators found pepper spray, knives, a stun gun, black masks, two-way radios, a gas mask, a tactical vest and other items, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in federal court.

A secondary inspection uncovered numerous electronic devices, including laptops, iPhones and storage devices.

Investigators questioned Ramadan about the stun gun and other items found in the luggage.

“Ramadan could not give an answer and became very nervous,” FBI Special Agent Ryan Schanberger wrote in a search warrant affidavit.

Based on Ramadan’s response, investigators searched the electronic storage devices.

Investigators found videos of Ramadan shooting pistols and rifles, including a sniper rifle. They also found photos and videos of pipe bombs and propaganda videos and photos related to the Islamic State, including videos of fighters wearing black masks similar to those found in Ramadan’s luggage, according to Schanberger.

FBI agents showed Ramadan a photo obtained from one of his electronic devices. The photo showed what appeared to be a homemade, improvised explosive device, or pipe bomb, according to the filing.

“Ramadan stated that it was like a large firework that would make a loud bang when detonated, and that these items were sometimes used to throw at soldiers overseas,” the agent wrote.

Agents asked Ramadan how long it took to build the device.

“About one hour,” Ramadan said.

He immediately recanted, however, saying it would take one hour if he had all the components, according to the filing.

Ramadan said he made explosive devices for “educational purposes” while overseas and tested one by throwing it against a wall, according to the filing.

He acknowledged owning the items found in the luggage. Ramadan said he bought the items for personal protection and for making YouTube videos, court records show.

Ramadan had multiple YouTube channels. One, named “WB.88Guns,” contained seven videos posted between November 2016 and February 2017.

The videos show an individual shooting or handling various types of firearms, including a sniper rifle, according to the filing.

Five of the videos were shot outdoors in arid environments.

Ramadan told FBI agents he owned three weapons, including two rifles and a Glock pistol he had placed in a storage unit before arriving at the airport. Ramadan, however, did not disclose owning another pistol that was registered to him, the agent wrote.

Ramadan also was questioned about the Islamic State propaganda videos and photos found on his electronic devices.

“Ramadan stated that he likes and watches all aspects of combat footage,” the agent wrote. “He claimed that he does support ISIS’ goal of establishing ... an Islamic State, but that he does not support their methods of violence to achieve that goal, instead preferring a peaceful approach to converting non-believers into the Muslim religion and/or forming an Islamic State.”

Investigators told Ramadan that watching violent ISIS videos could prompt him to commit a violent act.

“Ramadan responded by saying that if he ever wanted to commit an attack he certainly would not have to travel overseas to do it,” the agent wrote. “Ramadan stated that he would do it in the United States as it would be much easier to accomplish than overseas.

“Ramadan stated that even if his weapons were confiscated, he could simply buy more weapons off the street...,” the agent added. “Ramadan further stated that a domestic attack would still be viewed and praised as a huge victory by ISIS.”

He would never wage an attack overseas, especially in Israel, the father of four small children told agents.

“Because the Israelis retaliate against every family member for the acts of the perpetrator, even though they had no involvement,” Ramadan told investigators, according to the court filing.

It is possible the FBI was investigating Ramadan before he arrived at the airport, Hughes said.

“Their first look at him probably wasn’t at the airport,” Hughes said.

Based on the court filings, it also is unknown whether investigators believe Ramadan was trying to travel overseas to join the Islamic State in Syria or another country, Hughes said.

Days after questioning Ramadan at the airport and preventing him from flying overseas, the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit sought a search warrant for Ramadan’s storage unit in Ann Arbor.

Agents were hunting for weapons, bomb components, Islamic State propaganda, terrorism-related information and a motive that would explain why Ramadan possessed explosives, according to the search warrant affidavit.

Based on Ramadan’s comments and evidence found on his electronic devices, there was probable cause that he had violated federal laws, including possession of a destructive device and receiving unlicensed explosive materials, the agent wrote.

On Aug. 23, a federal magistrate judge approved a search warrant for the storage unit. Agents raided the storage unit that day and found two rifles, a handgun, components of an AR-15 rifle and two semi-automatic handguns.

Investigators also found ammunition, fireworks and a homemade silencer, according to the court filing.

The search of electronic devices found in the luggage was warrantless and investigators lacked suspicion, his defense lawyers Andrew Densemo and Colleen Fitzharris wrote in a filing Wednesday.

“All statements Mr. Ramadan made to the police about the videos and photos found on the hard drives are fruits of the illegal search and must be suppressed,” they wrote.