FBI finds another alleged home-grown jihadi in Pennsylvania

A federal judge denied Emerson Begolly a pretrial release to a halfway house yesterday after the FBI produced evidence that the 21-year-old “loner” had
corresponded on a radical jihadi website about methods of committing terroristic acts. The defense objected to his detention, arguing that the evidence pulled together by federal prosecutors all consisted of constitutionally protected rights of bearing arms and free speech:

A 21-year-old loner from Armstrong County had an arsenal in his bedroom, a radical Islamist online persona and videos suggesting paramilitary training before his arrest last week for biting two FBI agents, federal prosecutors charged in court Thursday.

As a result, Emerson W. Begolly will remain in jail pending trial, U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill decided, over the strenuous objections of a defense attorney who said his client was nonviolent. A magistrate judge’s decision last week to ship him to a halfway house, which was stayed during its appeal, was shelved.

Mr. Begolly “has a strong desire to kill non-Muslims and many other groups of people,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song. “He was preparing, and he was getting closer and closer to bringing his words and aspirations to fruition.”

The FBI has apparently been tracking Begolly for quite a while. They waited for him to leave his house before executing search warrants, and arrested him at a burger joint. Begolly apparently went for his concealed firearm — a really bad idea when chatting with FBI agents — and then bit them while they arrested him. Just for this alone, one would assume that a federal judge might be reluctant to release a defendant before trial.

The FBI came up with more, however. In their response to the request for pre-trial release, they produced Begolly’s communications with someone named Abu Nancy, and the discussions weren’t about the finer points of prayer:

One communication detailed how an old Buick could be turned into a car bomb using gasoline and tanks — apparently of propane — that could be ignited with a gunshot.

Another talked of “being a suicide martyr on your school,” or taking school kids as hostages and demanding the freedom of Muslim prisoners.

“Clearly, not just military, but also civilian targets can be used,” Mr. Ferguson read from a transcript of the communications. “How can [Western forces] destroy our weddings and not expect to pay?”

They also released this video confiscated during their search warrants that depict Begolly taking target practice, shooting at a pumpkin. The other man in the video is Begolly’s father Shawn, who congratulates him for “wounding” the pumpkin:

Presumably, the prayers in Arabic that start the video come from Emerson rather than Shawn. Nothing Begolly does in the video is illegal; in fact, Emerson Begolly looks like a poor marksman in any case, missing a pumpkin repeatedly from a relatively close distance, thanks to a movie-pose firing stance. The creepiest moment comes from the long pan of the aircraft as its landing as part of this sequence of target practice.

The family claims that Emerson Begolly has Asperger’s Syndrome and that the attack on the FBI agents came because they “surprised” him. I’d find it a little difficult to believe that someone would put a semiautomatic rifle in the hands of their Asperger’s son, though, and that still wouldn’t explain the communications to jihadis about hostaging and terrorism. It looks as though the FBI managed to get ahead of yet another home-grown jihadi wannabe before they managed to upgrade to professional status.

Update: I got a thoughtful note from the father of a son with Asperger’s, and I really need to clarify my thoughts:

My son has Asperger’s Syndrome which is in the Autism Spectrum. It does not mean that Begolly is disconnected from the world or “rainman” like. Most Asperger’s cases are fairly intelligent with poor social skills. 80% of communication is non verbal and that is the part of communication that most asperger’s cases have problems with. They also tend to take verbal communication literally which makes things more interesting when it comes to jokes and liars. I take my son shooting all the time. He is physically and mentally capable of leading a normal life. He knows right from wrong. The “surprise” part makes a little sense, but not more than most other people defending themselves if they are startled. I cant see the “surprise” standing up in court. The disturbing part is the communication with jihadis. Someone who he trusts has been telling him its okay to commit Jihad and more than likely his parents have been supporting it. Please don’t publish my name for obvious reasons, but you can call if you would like to talk to someone with experience with aspergers.

I am aware that Asperger’s is a spectrum, with the high end being more like ADD. What I meant, and what I should have written, was that the father seems to be arguing that Begolly has a form of Asperger’s that is disabling enough to not know how to respond to FBI agents, not know that carrying a concealed gun without a permit is illegal, and perhaps not knowing right from wrong enough to avoid falling into the arms of Internet jihadists, although it’s more likely that they’re just denying any such contact. If Begolly’s Asperger’s is that disabling, then one has to wonder why the father allowed his son to accumulate that much weaponry and apparently encouraged it.

Update: Rusty from My Pet Jawa e-mails to explain that “Abu Nancy” was one of Begolly’s noms des guerres, not someone with whom Begolly was communicating — a group which includes some “very bad people.” Rusty will be following this story closely, so keep up with it at MPJ.