Three men were arrested in the United States today for allegedly conspiring to join ISIS. 19-year-old Akhror Saidakhmetov was arrested at JFK in New York while trying to board his flight to Istanbul. 24-year-old Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev was arrested in Brooklyn a month before his plane to Turkey was scheduled to depart. 30-year-old Abror Habibov was arrested in Florida, accused of helping fund Saidakhmetov’s trip.
The three men, two with citizenship in Uzbekistan and one with citizenship in Kazakhstan, had been monitored by the FBI for several months. According to ABC News, Juraboev had written messages on an Uzbek-language ISIS site that referenced threats to America and President Obama. “I am in USA now,” the post apparently read, “But is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here? What I’m saying is, to shoot Obama and then get shot ourselves, will it do? That will strike fear in the hearts of infidels." Undercover FBI agents subsequently met with Juraboev on multiple occasions, during which he professed his allegiance to ISIS and claimed that he would be willing to carry out an attack on the president if the group asked him to do so.
NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton celebrated the arrests, claiming they help protect citizens at home and abroad. “ISIL calls on its followers to come fight for the terrorist organization in Syria, and in messages to followers outside Syria, ISIL has called on them to attack police, intelligence officers or the military in their home countries including the United States. By pledging allegiance to ISIL, these defendants conspired to fight for a designated foreign terrorist organization either in Syria, or even New York,” Bratton said.
The arrests represent the alarming trend of young foreigners traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. They also represent the alarming trend of the U.S. government arresting people for what essentially amounts to thought crime, as well as Commissioner Bratton's heightened fear of crime against law enforcement officers. Even though these three individuals discussed carrying out harmful acts against America, they hadn’t actually done anything or made any specific plans. There’s nothing illegal about traveling to areas that are controlled by ISIS.
The U.S. government wants to stop people from joining ISIS because it perceives the establishment of a caliphate as a threat to a region which we currently control. ISIS has committed innumerable acts of brutality and terror, but the caliphate itself has thus far posed no real imminent threat to the United States. Arresting people for leaving the country to travel there is more along the lines of stopping Nazi sympathizers from moving to Germany during World War II than it is stopping Jews from moving to Israel after the war, but the idea is the same nonetheless. We’re arresting people that haven’t actually done anything yet because their views differ from what's deemed socially acceptable.
These type of arrests are a classic tactic of the post-9/11, Homeland Security era. Even Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s presumed caliphate, was once captured and detained then released by American forces. We had him, deemed him non-dangerous, then released him. The moment an individual became a terrorist is never clear in these scenarios, but we know that al-Baghdadi left American captivity and went on to start one of the largest extremist armies in religious history. But we’ve also likely arrested (or killed) tons of terrorist suspects that did, in fact, turn out to be innocent. The question then becomes similar to the one most commonly raised in the death penalty debate: if the government wrongly convicts someone even once, is it worth it?
As ISIS grows stronger and attracts more young recruits from around the world, Western nations will likely answer “yes” to that question. As long as everyone's given a fair trial, that's not the worst approach in the world. It’s also easy to read stories about the arrest of people pledging to join ISIS without even flinching. They’re terrorists, and we caught them before they could cause any harm. With the case of the three people arrested today, that may be true. But arresting people for attempting to leave the country and travel to ISIS-controlled areas is a dangerous way for a government to operate. As much as the U.S. and the Western world would like to frame it that way, the reality is never as black-and-white as it seems.
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