The FBI Tried (And Failed) To Catfish A Pizza Guy Into Mass Murder
In 2014, the FBI noticed someone posting a pic holding a pistol while flashing a skyward ISIS sign with his other hand. They looked closer and saw this guy—Khalil Abu Rayyan, a 21-year-old Muslim pizza delivery guy from Michigan—also posted images from ISIS videos. Later, he posted a photo of himself with a AK-47 and captioned it "Sahwat hunting," which basically means "hunting for enemies of ISIS."
As it would later turn out, Rayyan had no connections with ISIS, and he had less means to pull off a mass shooting than the average person. The rifle photo had been at a gun range because he was now legally barred from buying a firearm of his own, after police pulled him over one time and saw him storing his own pistol with his weed. But it's very much the FBI's job to follow up on potential threats like this. We'd like you now to pause for a second and think of what action the FBI should have taken in this case.
Okay, now here's what the FBI actually did. They catfished Rayyan using two separate fake online female personas. They tried to get him to agree to kill himself in a suicide bombing, killing innocent people (so they could arrest him before he actually carried out the act). He refused. They finally gave up on their plan and arrested him anyway.
The first fake girlfriend was Ghaada. She offered to marry Rayyan, but this was a miscalculation. Soon, Rayyan said he and his father were both going to travel to Cleveland to meet her and fix wedding plans, so she ghosted him right after this. The next fake girlfriend was Jannah. The FBI were more careful this time, never saying anything that would force an in-person meeting but still romancing Rayyan ... and also talking about terrorism.
Jannah said she dreamed of carrying out a suicide attack, but Rayyan replied, "I can't be in this game." "Don't do anything that will hurt u yourself or other people," he later said. "Depression is real but don't let it run your life." He said that he himself had bought a rope, thinking of killing himself, and Jannah cautioned him not to—he shouldn't hang himself, she said, he should only kill himself in an act of jihad.
At one point, Rayyan talked of how he'd previously planned to shoot up a church, and had even gone so far as stockpiling ammunition and practicing shooting before his father caught him. This is the sort of thing the FBI absolutely needs to respond to. But evidence doesn't support him doing what he told Jannah he'd done—it looks like this was just bluster. He also falsely claimed to own a cool sword.
She talked more about getting him to kill people, and Rayyan said, "I'm not trying to get arrested again." She talked about stuff the government monitors, and Rayyan said, "I think they are looking for people that want to attack them or go to Syria. I don't want to do either of that. I just want my baby."
The FBI spent an entire year in contact with Rayyan, hoping all along to get him on terrorism charges. Finally, in February 2016, they arrested him. They charged him with "making a false statement while purchasing a firearm" and "possessing a firearm" while he "regularly uses an unlawful controlled substance." Neither of these charges involved evidence from the online conversations. Both stemmed from that earlier police stop, which had already resulted in cops confiscating his weapon.
He pleaded guilty, and a court sentenced him to five years. This was several times the usual sentence for such crimes. When seeking the longer sentence, prosecutors cited his dangerous comments to Jannah, even though none of these comments constituted enough evidence for them to charge him with more offenses. Sentencing him based just on the crimes they'd charged him with would be like sentencing Al Capone just for tax evasion, they argued.
He wasn't trying to join ISIS before, said his lawyer, but five years in prison might push him in that direction. True, admitted the judge, but prison also offers useful vocational training, so maybe it's for the best, said the judge, who's to say?