Did FBI thwart Michigan-based terror threat?

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — The FBI’s counterterrorism team blocked an Ypsilanti man from flying to the Middle East and arrested him Friday after discovering a weapons arsenal in a storage unit, the latest national security-related case in Metro Detroit.

Yousef Mohammad Ramadan, 28, has not been charged with a terror-related crime and an FBI spokesman declined to comment, leaving it unclear why the FBI’s counterterrorism team and the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s national security unit are involved in the case, whether investigators had thwarted a terror attack or stopped a man from traveling overseas to commit terror.

The case is shrouded in secrecy. The U.S. Attorney’s Office quietly brought Ramadan into federal court Saturday for a rare weekend arraignment that happened when federal court was closed to the public. The arraignment, which was not posted on the court’s calendar, ended with a federal magistrate judge ordering Ramadan be held temporarily without bond.

Ramadan has been charged with knowingly possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number, a five-year felony.

More details about the case are expected to be revealed when Ramadan appears for a detention hearing Tuesday in federal court. He’s being held in the Wayne County Jail.

The prosecutor overseeing the case is Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel, chief of the office’s national security unit who successfully prosecuted underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, according to federal court records. The lead investigator is FBI Special Agent Ryan Schanberger, a member of an elite counterterrorism squad who investigated terror suspect Sebastian Gregerson, who will be sentenced to prison this week.

“Given the background of the agents and the assistant U.S. attorney, it appears to be more than a run-of-the-mill illegal gun case,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “The FBI devoted much more resources than they traditionally would for cases like this.”

Ramadan could not be reached for comment and his court-appointed lawyer did not respond to a message seeking comment Sunday.

Ramadan has lived in Ypsilanti and near San Diego, Calif., in recent years and worked as a security guard, according to public records. While living in Chula Vista, Calif., he received a firearm permit in 2010, but it expired in 2014, according to the state Department of Consumer Affairs.

His most recent address is at the Willow Ridge Apartments in Ypsilanti, five miles east of Michigan Stadium. A neighbor, Tonia Atkins, 47, said Sunday that “I've never seen anyone there.”

The counterterrorism case was revealed in a criminal complaint unsealed late Friday.

The case dates to Aug. 15 when Ramadan, his wife and children tried to fly to Amman, Jordan, aboard a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight, from an airport not identified in the complaint.

Before the family could depart, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and an FBI special agent interviewed Ramadan.

Ramadan told investigators the family was relocating to Bethlehem territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, according to the FBI.

During the interview, Ramadan said he owned two rifles and a Glock handgun and placed the firearms in a storage unit before arriving at the airport, court records show.

Ramadan could not remember the storage unit address but offered to take investigators to the facility.

“However, when asked to take the agents to the storage unit, Ramadan stated that he had lied about the storage unit, and actually had stored the firearms with a friend,” Schanberger wrote in the criminal complaint.

Then the story changed.

“Ramadan refused to identify the friend to whom he had allegedly given the firearms, stating he did not want to cause his friend to have problems with law enforcement,” the agent wrote.

Ramadan said the firearms were legally purchased and registered.

Then the story changed again.

“Ramadan also stated that he had made up the story about the self-storage unit,” the agent wrote.

Records showed Ramadan had legally registered the Glock handgun, but investigators would soon find more weapons after agents linked Ramadan to a unit at Devon Self Storage on South State Road in Ann Arbor.

On Aug. 23, a federal magistrate judge approved a search warrant for the storage unit.

Ramadan’s wife is listed as the primary contact for the unit; he is the emergency contact, according to the FBI, which called the move an attempt to disguise Ramadan’s involvement with the storage unit.

The lease agreement for the storage unit omitted Ramadan’s address, the FBI said. The lease agreement also omitted the fact that Ramadan and his wife were married.

The FBI special agent wrote in the complaint that he is “aware that individuals in actual or constructive control of contraband often attempt to conceal such possession.”

Ramadan paid for the storage unit since December, according to the FBI.

The day Ramadan tried to leave the U.S., a man driving a Honda Odyssey matching one registered to Ramadan’s sister was spotted on the storage facility’s surveillance camera entering the business, according to the criminal complaint.

On Wednesday, undercover FBI agents spotted Ramadan riding in his sister’s Honda Odyssey, according to the complaint. Agents raided the storage unit that day. Inside, agents found two rifles and a handgun.

“Ramadan did not tell agents about the Kimber Covert Pro II handgun, but it is in fact registered to him in the state of Michigan,” the agent wrote.

The rifles matched the description of firearms disclosed by Ramadan at the airport.

Also, agents found components of an AR-15 rifle and two semi-automatic handguns.

The handguns had obliterated serial numbers, which is a federal crime, according to the FBI.

The FBI has investigated and helped prosecute several terrorism-related cases in recent years, most notably Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Metro Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

Staff Writer James David Dickson contributed.