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Tampa terrorism case raises questions of surveillance, searches, mental illness

Muhammed Al-Azhari is accused of plotting a mass shooting in the name of ISIS. His lawyers have challenged the FBI’s investigative tactics.
An image included in a court document in the case of Muhammed Al-Azhari shows a small plane that Al-Azhari's 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 Al-Azhari shows a small plane that Al-Azhari's defense has said is one of several the government used to conduct surveillance. [ U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ]
Published Dec. 27, 2021

TAMPA — A year ago, federal prosecutors accused a Tampa man of plotting a mass shooting in support of the ISIS terrorist group.

FBI agents in a criminal complaint described Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari’s collection of a bulletproof vest, an Uzi submachine gun, a silencer and firearm parts, among other items. They said he perused Islamic State chat rooms, researched the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and explored Honeymoon Island and other popular Tampa Bay locations as they said he planned a similar massacre.

Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari is charged with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari is charged with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. [ Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ]

Since Al-Azhari’s arrest in May 2020, his case has moved quietly through federal court, with defense attorneys raising questions about the tactics investigators used to monitor him and search his belongings.

Late last month came a new wrinkle: His defense says he might be mentally unfit for trial.

Court records detail a complex investigation amid flurries of pretrial litigation.

Spy planes

This photo, included in a court paper in the federal case of Muhammed Al-Azhari, is said to show the view from a surveillance plane as Al-Azhari returns to his home on May 8, 2020.
This photo, included in a court paper in the federal case of Muhammed Al-Azhari, is said to show the view from a surveillance plane as Al-Azhari returns to his home on May 8, 2020. [ U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ]

One legal battle at the heart of Al-Azhari’s case concerns what’s been described as a “secret spy plane surveillance program.”

In a court document filed in August, Assistant Federal Defender Samuel Landes describes a fleet of small airplanes that the FBI owns and uses to conduct covert surveillance. Each plane bears a tail number that is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration to fictitious front companies, the lawyer wrote.

The aircraft have high-tech video cameras affixed to their undersides, with powerful lenses capable of zooming in on people and places, and infrared technology that allows night vision and thermal imaging, the motion alleges. From high altitudes, the planes circle and record their targets.

In the case of Al-Azhari, the defense says the government collected 900 aerial surveillance videos, taken from planes whose tail numbers have been linked to the FBI. The planes followed Al-Azhari whenever he left his home, including jaunts to Honeymoon Island State Park and Orlando, where the government alleges he was scouting targets for a mass shooting. The planes also watched him get his mail, visit his sister’s apartment, check in at a medical clinic and go to a facility where he sought mental health treatment, according to the defense.

They flew at about 10,000 feet, sometimes over clouds, recording for more than 428 hours over more than 40 days, the defense alleges.

“Small, quiet, and high in the sky, the planes were barely noticeable to those on the ground,” Landes wrote. “The FBI sometimes used multiple planes on the same day, with a new plane picking up the surveillance another had left off.”

The defense asserts that the aerial surveillance was unreasonable, and violated Al-Azhari’s privacy. They say it constituted a search — one for which the government did not have a warrant. Thus, they want a judge to order that the videos be barred from the case.

The FBI’s use of surveillance planes has been the subject of controversy since 2015, when national news media reports revealed their existence and their use to monitor protests.

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The FBI and federal prosecutors dispute that the agency operates a secret spy plane program. In response to media reports about the planes, the FBI has acknowledged that it uses “aerial assets” as part of investigations of specific individuals.

In a written response, prosecutors say that the “Orwellian state” described by the defense is “untethered from reality.” They offered to have pilots testify about the planes and their purpose.

A judge has yet to rule on the issue.

An arrest and a search

On May 1, 2020, Tampa police approached Al-Azhari at a Home Depot store where he’d worked on North Florida Avenue. An arrest report states that they went there in response to an “intelligence bulletin” regarding threats he was said to have made against fellow employees. In his pocket, they found a revolver, court documents state.

That night, he phoned his sister, Muna Al-Azhari, from jail. A document filed by his defense attorneys includes a partial transcript of the call.

They talk about bail. (He would be released within days, but later re-arrested). He tells her to go back to the Home Depot and drive his car away so that it doesn’t get towed. He also tells her to go to his house, gather all his stuff — including a laptop and a Saudi Arabian court document — and either keep everything or trash it.

“I have some toys …” he says, according to the transcript. Court documents state that she understood “toys” to mean guns.

“I want you to go to my house tonight,” he says. “I have some toys there that I want you to pick up, they are all legal and allowed, and keep them at your place temporarily.”

He tells her he wants her to do it right away. He says he’s afraid authorities or his landlord might see the items.

“I’m afraid if they tow the car, they will also find a toy of mine inside,” he says. “I have a toy at home and a toy in the car. ...”

“Muna, they will take the toy to the police,” he says.

The defense document states that the FBI had recruited Muna Al-Azhari as an informant against her brother. Prosecutors deny this, writing that agents had been in contact with members of his family since 2019 and that Muna Al-Azhari had been speaking with a particular FBI agent because she was concerned about her brother’s activities and mental health.

After visiting her brother in jail, she discussed with an agent the best way to dispose of Al-Azhari’s guns. They tried to obtain Al-Azhari’s keys from jail, but were unsuccessful. Agents would later go with Muna Al-Azhari to her brother’s house, which they found locked. She helped the agents get in through an unlocked window after signing a form giving her consent for them to search.

Once inside, the agents seized a gun and ammunition, knives, a crossbow, a stun gun, cellphones, a laptop computer and various other items.

Prosecutors say that the jail call demonstrates that Al-Azhari gave his sister authority to enter his home and look through his belongings. The defense calls it an unlawful search. They’ve asked a judge to bar from the case any evidence the government seized as a result.

A mental health concern

The case has been dogged by new concerns over his psychological state. Late last month, defense attorneys requested a mental health exam. They noted a family history of mental illness and detailed their own observations of their client.

In his teens, Al-Azhari was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, where he was tortured and began to experience visual hallucinations and talk to people who were not there, according to the motion requesting a mental health exam. The motion describes his problems worsening after his release. He would sleep by his front door at night and wake up panicked, believing that Saudi spies or the FBI were going to kill him.

He never received treatment for his problems until adulthood. A psychologist retained by the defense examined Al-Azhari in jail, diagnosing schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, and adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression.

The motion notes that Al-Azhari believes the psychologist and a member of his defense team are spies. He has refused treatment or medication. Housed in a windowless jail cell away from other prisoners, his condition has worsened, defense attorneys said.

Earlier this month, a judge ordered another mental health expert to examine Al-Azhari. If found incompetent, he would be committed to a government mental health facility for treatment until he is deemed well enough to continue toward trial.

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