TAMPA — In the month before his arrest Sunday, federal agents says Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari was preparing for a bloodbath.
The 23-year-old Tampa man ordered a bullet-resistant vest, a long sleeved hooded coat, an animal balaclava face mask and a drone. He bought an Uzi submachine gun and tried to order firearm parts and a silencer from eBay, according to a criminal complaint filed in the Middle District of Florida.
In his free time, he surfed Islamic State chatrooms that offered training on making suicide belts and bombs. He looked up details of Omar Mateen’s 2016 shooting attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and googled “Bayshore Boulevard” and “busy beach.” One day, he drove out to Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, then turned around and drove straight back to Tampa.
And, the FBI said, he filmed a mock rehearsal of himself carrying out a massacre:
“Hey you, get on the floor. Get on the floor now. Don’t you move, don’t you move, I’m telling you, I will kill you," he said in the April 30 cell phone video that FBI agents said they obtained. He was wearing a mask and holding a weapon that agents believe was the Uzi. “This is revenge for my brothers.”
But Al-Azhari didn’t know that the FBI had been tracking his moves since April, when he first ordered gun parts on eBay.
He was arrested Sunday on a federal charge of attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, the Department of Justice announced this week. The criminal complaint refers to the terror group as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
Al-Azhari is now being held at the Pinellas County Jail at the request of federal agents.
His federal public defender, Samuel Landes, said his client was innocent of the allegations.
“The government’s charges in this case unfairly attempt to portray this United States citizen as a terrorist,” he said. “The allegations misunderstand both the law and the evidence.”
Al-Azhari is no stranger to Islamic State ideology. He served three years in prison in Saudi Arabia for attempting to join the organization in Syria with his father and two others, according to the criminal complaint. He returned to the U.S. in late 2018 — first to California, where his grandmother lives, and then he moved to Tampa.
An undercover FBI agent started talking to Al-Azhari after he tried to order a pistol frame and jig kit from an eBay seller in Texas, the complaint said. The FBI learned of the sale — the complaint doesn’t say how — and asked the eBay vendor to let an agent take over their account. The vendor agreed.
The undercover agent began calling Al-Azhari on April 25 to discuss possible gun sales. Over the next week, the FBI said it recorded Al-Azhari pressing the undercover agent for help to obtain firearms and a silencer and tried to arrange a cross-country shipment of illicit weapon parts. The criminal complaint included recorded statements from Al-Azhari encouraging the agent to buy a gun from a pawn shop, wipe the serial number and sent it to him. Other comments included these statements:
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“But look, bro, I want like a really, really quiet silencer.”
“Hey bro, I wanna ask you, do you know, if I wanted to convert the, the, this Uzi that I have into a 9mm—into fully automatic— do you know how I can do that?”
While he was talking with the agent, the FBI said text messages from Al-Azhari’s phone show he bought a Uzi submachine gun from a local seller. After his arrest, agents retrieved the Uzi.
On May 1, a Tampa police officer arrested Al-Azhari on a charge of carrying a concealed firearm into the Home Depot store at 8815 N Florida Ave., where he used to work. He had threatened his coworkers, police said, and was considered “armed and dangerous.” The officer said Al-Azhari had a loaded .22-caliber pistol in his pocket when he was arrested and did not have a concealed weapons permit.
He was freed from the Hillsborough County jail the next day after posting $1,000 bail. The company said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that he worked there for less than a year.
FBI agents interviewed Home Depot employees, according to the complaint, and they said Al-Azhari often conveyed “passionate and aggressive” views, saying things like Americans got what they deserved in the 9/11 attacks. Several employees also said Al-Azhari had asked them to help him obtain a gun.
In late May, Al-Azhari started talking to an unnamed informant who has previously been convicted of federal crimes, the FBI said. Agents started paying the informant to talk to and record Al-Azhari to help the federal investigation.
Over the next four days, according to the complaint, Al-Azhari shared Islamic State propaganda to try to convert the informant and talked about acquiring guns and targeting police officers. He also said he wanted to kill Americans and move to Iraq or Syria.
“I want to join ISIS,” the complaint said he told the informant. “They are the real followers.”
The two agreed to pool their money to buy a Glock pistol and a silencer from the informant’s cousin, the complaint said. They met Sunday in Tampa, the FBI said, and the informant gave Al-Azhari a bag containing the gun, an extended magazine, a regular magazine and a silencer.
After examining the contents, Al-Azhari accepted the bag, the FBI said. He got into the informant’s front passenger seat. Then he was arrested.