Attorney: Feds used women to entice alleged ISIS backer

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A federal defender representing an alleged Islamic State supporter from Dearborn Heights is accusing the government of “double-teaming” his client with two fictitious Islamic women who posed as potential wives for the 21-year-old while he was under FBI surveillance.

Khalil Abu-Rayyan, who was being watched by the government for allegedly making violent threats about committing acts of terror and martyrdom in Metro Detroit, was the victim of a “disturbingly crafted seduction and manipulation ... through the inducement of love,” attorney Todd Shanker wrote in a motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Detroit in a second attempt to get bond for his client.

Rayyan never met the two women he knew online only as “Jannah” and “Ghadda.” The FBI created the phony identities to communicate with Rayyan via text message and Twitter as part of a federal investigation.

“Rayyan has never had a girlfriend and has never touched, much less kissed, a woman,” Shanker wrote in the brief.

“Vulnerable as Rayyan was, the government chose to orchestrate a reprehensible drama where the young man was uplifted to “Cloud 9” — he was engaged to marry the first informant (“Ghadda”), they discussed how many children they would have together, and planned a wedding ceremony — only to be utterly devastated with her break-up,” he wrote.

The next step in the government’s plan, Shanker said in the brief, was to exploit Rayyan’s devastation and loss through a second informant, named “Jannah,” who then would try to instigate Rayyan to agree to an act of terrorism.

“The government’s plan was to have the second woman, “Jannah,” be experiencing the loss of her fiancée (“Ahmed”), just as Rayyan had lost his (“Ghadda”),” Shanker wrote.

Shanker said in the brief that legal experts and common sense dictate that “the use of sexual or emotional intimacy by undercover agents/informants as an investigative tool is unconstitutional, outrageous and should be forbidden.”

Federal prosecutors have never charged Rayyan with terrorism-related crimes.

He was under FBI surveillance starting in May 2015, then was arrested Oct. 7 by Detroit police on suspicion of gun and drug possession. In February, federal prosecutors charged Rayyan with making a false statement to acquire a firearm and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, which are 10-year felonies.

Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, declined to comment on Shanker’s accusations and said her office would file a response at a later date.

On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge will hear arguments from both sides on whether to release Rayyan.

Federal prosecutors want Rayyan behind bars, saying his expressed support of Islamic State, his continually voiced desire to engage in a martyrdom operation and his fascination with death and killing — particularly beheadings — make him a danger to the community.

They also say Rayyan’s mental health issues, his possession and attempted possession of firearms, his drug use and his prior assaultive conduct are also reasons he should stay in federal detention.

In a motion filed last week, prosecutors argued that Rayyan should not get bond because such actions and statements took place before he began talking to “Jannah” in December.

Rayyan, who lived at home with his father and stepmother at the time of his arrest, has been in federal detention since Feb. 16.

Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said Shanker’s claims are designed to generate sympathy for his client but are not relevant to the issue of detention. They could be used later to raise issues on the strength of the government’s case, he said.

“The issue of whether the FBI acted improperly or properly (is) are irrelevant to the detention. You don’t argue entrapment at this point,” Henning said. “The underlying charge was a gun charge. He was not entrapped.”

The methods used by undercover agents in Rayyan’s case are similar to those used by law enforcement when officers pose online as underage girls or boys during sex stings, Henning said.

“In that regard, this is not a new tactic. Reaching the point of agreeing to marriage is pushing it, but it’s not improper,” Henning said. “If they had actually introduced a person, you would get close to conduct that crosses the line.”

Federal investigators have not disclosed whether “Ghadda” worked for the government but said she was directed by the FBI in Rayyan’s case, Shanker said.

Shanker said Ghadda, the first informant, posed as a 23-year-old Pakistani living in Cleveland who attended Ohio State University with a major in business and finance.

She told Rayyan that her family, like his, tried to arrange a marriage for her, but she wanted to pick her own husband. Ghadda’s father was Pakistani, and her mother was an American who converted to Islam.

By mid-December, the couple were engaged, despite never having met. Together, they discussed their wedding, their future children and life together, Shanker said.

“Notably, Rayyan never discussed any martyrdom operation with Ghadda,” Shanker said.

Federal investigators have not disclosed whether Ghadda worked for the government but said she was directed by the FBI in Rayyan’s case, Shanker said.

The second informant, “Jannah,” said she was a 19-year-old Sunni Muslim who was depressed, suicidal and prepared to engage in a martyrdom operation, but who also constantly held out the possibility of marriage to Rayyan, Shanker said.

Federal prosecutors said Rayyan told Jannah he was hearing voices in his head that told him to “burn people alive.” He also told the agent that “shooting and death make me excited. I love to hear people begging and screaming. ... I wish I had my gun.”

He also told her about a plot to target a Detroit church.

“I tried to shoot up a church one day,” Abu-Rayyan said, according to a complaint filed by federal authorities in U.S. District Court. “I don’t know the name of it, but it’s close to my job. It’s one of the biggest ones in Detroit. Ya, I had it planned out. I bought a bunch of bullets. I practiced a lot with it. I practiced reloading and unloading. But my dad searched my car one day, and he found everything. He found the gun and the bullets and a mask I was going to wear.”

Investigators didn’t name the church Abu-Rayyan allegedly eyed, but claimed the property covers about two blocks less than a half-mile from his work and can accommodate up to 6,000 members.