TAMPA (CBSMiami) — A Florida man, accused of planning to carry out a terrorist attack in Tampa Bay on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq, has now been officially charged by federal prosecutors.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the filing of a criminal complaint charging Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, 23, with “attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization,” namely ISIS.
Investigators say Al-Azhari has a criminal history that includes previous terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia. They say he tried to buy multiple guns before acquiring a Glock pistol and a silencer.
Prosecutors say he expressed “admiration” for the deceased Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and even drove there to scope out the location. In a conversation with a confidential informant, the FBI says, Al-Azhari said “that’s how I want to die, to be honest.”
The informant then asked how many people Al-Azhari wanted to kill.
“I don’t want to take four or five, no. I want to take at least 50,” Al-Azhari replied on the recording, according to the affidavit. “You know like, brother Omar Mateen in Orlando did. He took 49 with him.”
According to law enforcement, the 23-year-old couted potential targets around Tampa. He traveled to Honeymoon Island and the FBI’s Tampa Field Office, but also researched Clearwater Beach and Bellaire Beach.
He also rehearsed parts of an attack and the public statements he planned to make about it, said authorities.
Without going into detail, Maria Chapa Lopez, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said swift action by law enforcement officers and “concerned citizens” allowed investigators to interrupt a “serious threat” without anyone getting hurt.
The Department of Justice charged Al-Azhari with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
“I commend the 18 federal, state, and local member agencies who comprise FBI Tampa’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) for working day and night to prevent the loss of life in the Tampa Bay community,” said Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Tampa Division, Michael F. McPherson.
A public defender listed in court records for Al-Azhari said the government’s charges in the case unfairly attempt to portray him as a terrorist.
“The allegations misunderstand both the law and the evidence,” said the public defender, Samuel Landes, in an emailed statement. “I’m thankful that in this country everyone enjoys a presumption of innocence, and I look forward to Mr. Al-Azhari’s day in court before a jury of his peers.”
The affidavit also details how Al-Azhari negotiated with an undercover FBI employee to purchase a variety of guns and silencers, including an AK-47-style rifle.
He was arrested May 24 after taking possession of weapons allegedly to be used in an attack. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison.
After Al-Azhari served three years in prison in Saudi Arabia, he was deported to the U.S., according to the FBI. He lived in California and since 2019 in the Tampa area.