Suspected ISIS soldier tricked into joining fight, family says

Robert Snell Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Ibraheem Musaibli, as seen in his high school yearbook photo, and the house he left when he went to Syria, authorities say.

Dearborn — A Dearborn man captured on an Islamic State battlefield this month was tricked by fellow Muslims into traveling overseas and became trapped in war-torn Syria, his brother said Friday.

Relatives, public records and legal experts helped establish a narrative timeline of Ibraheem Musaibli's final months in the United States, his alleged attempts to escape an Islamic State prison with help from the FBI and potential prosecution in a high-profile criminal case in Detroit. The chronology emerged Friday, one day after it was revealed the Dearborn native had been captured by Coalition-backed forces in Syria while believed to be fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Musaibli, 28, is no terrorist but was lured by fellow Muslims into coming to Syria to study religion and work, younger brother Abdullah Musaibli told The Detroit News on Friday via Facebook Messenger.

"My brother is the best person in the world, however he is very trusting in other Muslims like him," Abdullah Musaibli, 26, of New York City, wrote. "That is why he is in this situation, because other 'Muslims' tricked him into coming to Syria to study religion and work. He had NO idea this group was ISIS."

Abdullah Musaibli said he last communicated with his brother two months ago.

"Me being a Muslim, I despise ISIS and all terrorists with all my heart, because they give Islam a very bad name," he wrote. "Islam is a religion of peace and what they are doing in the Middle East is despicable.”

Ibraheem Musaibli is being held at an undisclosed overseas facility but is expected to return to the U.S. as early as next week. He is being detained along with an Indiana woman whose husband was an Islamic State member, according to The New York Times.

Musaibli is believed to be only the second American man captured while fighting on behalf of the Islamic State, and he presents one of the first times the Trump administration could use federal courts to prosecute a returning foreign fighter.

Though Musaibli was captured overseas, he could be prosecuted in Detroit, the federal jurisdiction which covers his hometown of Dearborn, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. The Times reported that it is likely Musaibli has been charged in a sealed federal court filing.

"We’re not going to have any issues of entrapment or that the government somehow acted unfairly in targeting him. He was on the battlefield," Henning said. "It's much easier when it's a black-and-white case."

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, convicted of trying to bomb a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight using explosives in his underwear, has filed a lawsuit over his treatment in federal prison in Colorado.

The Justice Department in Detroit has experience prosecuting people on terrorism-related charges. Underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was sentenced to life in federal prison for the failed Christmas Day 2009 terror attack aboard a Detroit-bound airliner, and Detroit resident Sebastian Gregerson, an Islamic State "soldier" accused of plotting violent jihad, was sentenced last year to 45 months in federal prison.

Abdulmutallab and Gregerson were represented by the Federal Defender Office, though Abdulmutallab later defended himself with assistance from a court-appointed attorney.

Miriam Siefer, head of the Federal Defender Office, said she has not been contacted about Musaibli.

“We haven’t been appointed yet,” she told The News. “If he needs court-appointed counsel, then we will represent him.”

Abdullah Musaibli said he doesn’t know if his brother has a lawyer but has been trying to find out, fearing Ibraheem will be questioned by law enforcement without representation. His father, Izzy Musaibli, told The News late Friday they're in dire need of legal representation.

The Program on Extremism at George Washington University has identified 71 Americans who have traveled either to Syria or Iraq to wage jihad. At least 24 of those American citizens have been killed. The status of 29 people is unknown while the rest have either returned to the U.S. or are in jail.

“On average, individuals who actually reach Syria or Iraq to join jihadist groups receive lighter sentences than those who get arrested on the way to the airport to travel,” said Seamus Hughes, the extremism program's deputy director. “It seems counterintuitive, but they tend to have information to trade, a window into the terrorist organization structure.”

From Dearborn to Yemen

Ibraheem Musaibli lived a low-key life in Dearborn. An Edsel Ford High School dropout, Musaibli helped his father operate a perfume shop in Detroit and had no contact with police besides a few minor traffic incidents, according to the Dearborn Police. 

“My brother Ibraheem has always been a joking, lovable person," Abdullah Musaibli wrote. "Even after he became religious, he would still joke and laugh with friends and family. He loved to watch TV shows and movies and enjoyed oldies music."

In 2010, Ibraheem Musaibli bought a $32,900 brick bungalow on Riverside Drive on the city's eastern boundary with Detroit, within walking distance of the American Moslem Society mosque.

Eventually, he got married, fathered a son and moved to the port city of Aden, Yemen.

Before leaving, Musaibli attended to trivial personal tasks. He added brother Yousif Musaibli and sister Sumaya Musaibli to the deed on his home in January 2015; two months later, he renewed his driver's license, according to Wayne County and state records.

While in Yemen, Ibraheem Musaibli started talking with fellow Muslims, his brother said, who lured him to Syria in 2015. 

Ibraheem Musaibli did not watch online sermons by radical Islamic clerics or seek out Islamic State contacts, his brother said.

“No, he just reads Quran and prays five times a day like any other Muslim," Abdullah Musaibli wrote. "My brother would never hurt anyone.”

Two years later, in January 2017, while Ibraheem Musaibli was believed to be in Syria, his signature appears on a quit claim deed that gave the home to his siblings.

Abdullah Musaibli, declined to comment about his brother transferring the house but told The News that Ibraheem Musaibli did intend on returning to the U.S. and is not an ISIS fighter. 

Abdullah Musaibli said he hopes to be able to speak with his brother upon his arrival to the United States. 

“I love him more than my life,” he said. “I’ll do anything for my brother.”

Musaibli's travel to Syria, and reported ties to the Islamic State, are rare but not unprecedented locally.

Michiganians in Syria

In 2016, federal agents were hunting for Flushing native Mohamed Maleeh Masha, 24, a suburban Flint medical school graduate who had fled to Syria and was believed to be working as a doctor for Islamic State extremists.

Mohamed Maleeh Masha

The Masha manhunt was revealed in a sealed federal search warrant that was briefly posted on the federal court online case database and obtained exclusively by The News. 

The records indicated the FBI was looking for evidence Masha was supporting Islamic State groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — known as ISIS.

Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old nurse from Flint, was killed in 2013 in Syria. She reportedly threw a grenade at Syrian soldiers who opened fire on her vehicle.

Musaibli, meanwhile, sent text messages to relatives after leaving Yemen confirming that he was joining the Islamic State, The Times reported, citing two unnamed officials familiar with the investigation.

Musaibli eventually became disillusioned after arriving in Syria, however, and his family tried to negotiate a way out with the FBI, according to the newspaper.

The FBI offered to return Musaibli to the United States if he surrendered. He refused, and negotiations stalled, the newspaper reported.

Izzy Musaibli claims that the prior reports were false and the FBI has been working to help his son escape from an Islamic State prison. 

"He's not a fighter, he's been working with the FBI to escape ISIS and after the last time he tried to escape, (ISIS) burned his passport," Izzy Musaibli said. "The FBI knows he's not a fighter and he's only been doing small work there for food to survive."

Izzy Musaibli said the family had brief contact with Ibraheem while he was stuck in Syria, trapped because the militants thought Ibraheem was a spy. 

"(ISIS) doesn't represent Islam, they have a totally different ideology, and Ibraheem was preaching against them," he said. "Every time he tried to escape, he was put back in prison, and we've been working with the FBI as a team."

A spokesman for the FBI in Detroit declined to comment Friday on Izzy Musaibli's claims. 

Ibraheem Musaibli's sister, Fatima Musaibli, who lives with her parents in a nearby home on Riverside Drive, said it would be uncharacteristic for him to join the Islamic State.

“Ibraheem wouldn’t do this," she told The News late Thursday. "He’s not violent and not the type to join such a group. We worry for him.” 

FBI agents searched the family's home nine days ago, Fatima Musaibli said.

“They took our phones, laptops, my brother’s old passports, a box full of stuff and said they would return it soon, but it’s been more than a week,” she said. 

It is unclear when the FBI started investigating Ibraheem Musaibli.

Sealed federal court records in Detroit indicate FBI agents were investigating a man with a similar last name last year.

In January 2017, FBI agents served a search warrant on Facebook information for an account belonging to Abu Abdul Rahman Al-Musibli. The still-active account lists several friends with the last name Musaibli, including one woman in Dearborn.

The next month, in February 2017, the FBI received 820 pages of information from the man's account, according to a copy of the search warrant return obtained by The News.

This photo is featured on a Facebook account searched by FBI agents last year.

Abdullah Musaibli declined comment about the Facebook account Friday and if it belonged to his brother.

Little known locally

Ibraheem Musaibli was a relative unknown within the broader Muslim community in Metro Detroit, which has about 300,000 members, one of the largest concentrations in the U.S., said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Walid said Musaibli's family did not approach CAIR for assistance in helping him return to the U.S.; however, Izzy Musaibli said they've tried to contact CAIR numerous times for assistance. 

"I am not familiar with this individual and I am not familiar with anyone from this area being apprehended for trying to join ISIS or having some reservations and trying to give himself up," Walid said Friday. 

Walid has concerns about Musaibli being prosecuted if he had tried to leave the terror group.

"This is the flaw in the federal government’s so-called countering violent extremism program," Walid said. "The community needs to be involved in prevention or de-radicalization but there is no mechanism for someone who gets into trouble to get them some sort of reformatory help."

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Twitter: @robertsnellnews

Staff Writer Blake Alsup contributed.