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Tampa man gets 18 years in prison in terrorism case that involved spy planes

Muhammed AlAzhari pleaded guilty in February to attempting to provide material support to an Islamist terrorist organization.
 
Muhammed Momtaz AlAzhari was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Thursday.
Muhammed Momtaz AlAzhari was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Thursday. [ Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ]
Published July 13, 2023|Updated July 13, 2023

A Tampa man who pledged his allegiance to Islamic militants and planned attacks in the Tampa Bay area was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in federal prison.

Muhammed Momtaz AlAzhari, 26, pleaded guilty in February to attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. A plea deal struck with federal prosecutors called for a prison sentence of 18 years. During Thursday’s hearing in Tampa, U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Barber approved the deal and granted prosecutors’ request for lifetime government supervision after AlAzhari’s release.

The sentence ends a case that that for nearly three years saw intense and complex litigation of issues related to government surveillance, searches and the defendant’s mental health.

A U.S. citizen born in California, AlAzhari spent most of his life abroad and embraced Islamist beliefs, according to court documents. In 2015, he was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for supporting Jaysh al-Islam, a rebel group involved in the Syrian war. He spent three years in custody there and upon his release was sent back to the United States. He moved to the Tampa area in the fall of 2019.

“Despite his time in Saudi Arabia — where the Defendant claims that he was tortured and now suffers from PTSD as a result — the Defendant’s commitment to violent extremist ideology did not waver,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo. “In fact, it deepened.”

Upon his arrival in the U.S., the FBI began to investigate him on suspicion of providing “material support” to ISIS, the militant organization also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, court documents state. In 2020, he began scouting potential targets in Tampa Bay, the agreement states. He consumed ISIS propaganda, spoke favorably of the terrorist group and took an oath of allegiance to them.

He spoke of vengeance for imprisonment of Muslims, including ISIS fighters, and for American military actions in the Middle East, documents state. AlAzhari rehearsed parts of his plan, practicing statements he would make during his attack.

By spring of 2020 he had acquired firearms and tactical gear, including a .22-caliber Uzi submachine gun and a 9 mm pistol, court documents state.

While under surveillance, AlAzhari interacted with an undercover FBI agent and another person that court documents identify as a “confidential human source.” He tried to buy guns from the undercover agent, but was arrested on an unrelated state firearms charge while negotiating the purchase.

Not long after, he met with the confidential source, tried to convert that person to Islam, confided his affiliation with ISIS and described his plans to support the group, court documents state. He asked the source to help him obtain weapons and to commit robberies, documents state. He said he wanted to kill at least 50 “kuffar,” or nonbelievers.

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When he was arrested in May 2020, federal agents had been watching AlAzhari for weeks. Their use of what his defense attorneys would describe as a “secret spy plane surveillance program” in monitoring his movements became a subject of legal challenges. The planes have high-tech video cameras affixed to their undersides, which are used to zoom in on people and places as the aircraft circle at a high altitude.

An image included in a court document in the case of Muhammed AlAzhari shows a small plane that his defense has said is one of several the government used to conduct surveillance.
An image included in a court document in the case of Muhammed AlAzhari shows a small plane that his defense has said is one of several the government used to conduct surveillance. [ U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ]

The government collected more than 900 aerial surveillance videos of AlAzhari, recording him as he got his mail, visited his sister and checked in at a mental health clinic. They also recorded his trips to Honeymoon Island State Park and Orlando, where the government said he was scoping out locations for an attack.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on the 18-year prison sentence, which is two years shy of the maximum allowed by law, but disagreed on how long he should be under government supervision after he’s released.

“Based on the nature of the offense conduct, the history and characteristics of the Defendant, and most importantly, the need to protect the public, the Defendant must be supervised for the rest of his life,” the prosecutors’ sentencing memo states.

This snapshot, included in a court paper in the federal case of Muhammed AlAzhari, is said to show the view from a surveillance plane as he was outside his home.
This snapshot, included in a court paper in the federal case of Muhammed AlAzhari, is said to show the view from a surveillance plane as he was outside his home. [ U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ]

AlAzhari’s federal public defenders objected, stating in their own sentencing memo that advisory guidelines call for three years of supervision.

AlAzhari was abused as a child and showed signs of mental illness but was never treated, according to his attorneys’ memo. While in custody in Saudi Arabia, he was tortured and his mental illness worsened, the memo states.

His mental state further deteriorated after he returned to the United States. He checked himself into the Gracepoint mental health facility and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed anti-psychotic medication, according to the memo. An expert hired by his defense attorneys diagnosed him with schizophrenia.

According to the defense memo, the most concrete plans AlAzhari and the government informant talked about “had little to do with ISIS or Islam at all, involving robbing banks and tire shops.”

“They discussed no specific targets or plan in the United States, and no specific effort to join ISIS overseas,” the memo states. “Whatever Muhammed wanted to do, it never materialized further than this.”