NEW YORK >> A once-imprisoned radical Islamic cleric is behind bars again, this time because of an unusual investigation that took New York City police officers far beyond their jurisdiction, to the Middle East, to make contact with a member of the Islamic State group.
The international sting that led to the arrest of Abdullah el-Faisal in Jamaica last week was pulled off by the New York Police Department without the involvement of the FBI or federal prosecutors, and without the target ever setting foot in New York.
Many details of how the investigation unfolded are still secret, but an indictment filed in state court in Manhattan said an undercover NYPD officer posing as a budding jihadist connected on social media with el-Faisal. El-Faisal is accused of trying to recruit the officer to become a medic for the militant group.
The indictment said the cleric introduced the officer to a facilitator based in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, who exchanged phone messages with the officer earlier this year.
The NYPD’s Intelligence Division dispatched a team of investigators to the region in the late stages of the yearlong probe, authorities said in a statement that didn’t offer further details of the NYPD’s activities abroad.
The police department said it got U.S. Department of Justice clearance to extend its investigation overseas.
Instead of working with federal prosecutors, the NYPD teamed with a special unit of local prosecutors, formed in 2015 by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., which relied on rarely used New York anti-terrorism laws to seek an indictment under the cleric’s birth name, Trevor William Forrest.
“It became clear to me that the Manhattan district attorney’s office, sitting in a city that’s the nation’s No. 1 terrorism target, should have the ability to support the country’s counterterrorism fight,” Vance said.
It’s unusual for the FBI-NYPD’s Joint Terrorist Task Force not to take the lead on a terrorist investigation, especially one with an international reach. Nor did the case involve any local suspects or a direct threat to the city that would explain why the prosecution is being conducted at the state level.
Vance said his office consulted with the task force before determining that state charges were the best option for prosecuting el-Faisal.
“Our goal is to bring him back to America,” he said. “I’m confident we’ve done everything in this process to make that happen.”
The FBI declined to comment on its absence from the case.
El-Faisal, 53, remains in custody in Jamaica pending extradition. It was unclear if he has attorney. New York authorities said he’s expected to seek bail at a court hearing in Jamaica later this month.
The 53-year preacher, known as “al-Jamaikee” or “the Jamaican,” has been on the radar of authorites around the globe for a long time.
He was imprisoned in the United Kingdom in 2003 after being convicted of incitement to murder and stirring racial hatred by urging followers to kill Hindus, Jews and Americans. He was deported from Britain to Jamaica, where he was born, upon his release in 2007.
In 2010, el-Faisal was arrested by anti-terror police in Kenya on charges he violated his tourist visa by preaching in mosques there. He was again sent back to Jamaica, where authorities had warned he could be a catalyst for aspiring jihadists among the country’s roughly 5,000 Muslims.
Fresh evidence of el-Faisal’s influence surfaced earlier this week in an unrelated federal case charging a New York City man with travelling to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to join the Islamic State group. Agents found jihadist lectures by el-Faisal on the suspect’s computer, according to a criminal complaint.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill, in announcing the arrest, credited his department with a sting operation against el-Faisal that “should bring an abrupt end to his global outreach in support of terror groups.”
The investigation reflects how New York City’s municipal police force decided to take a more aggressive counterterrorism role after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The NYPD has been criticized, at times, for going beyond city limits in its hunt for radical extremists who might pose a threat.
The department’s leaders, though, have repeatedly defended those practices as necessary to protect the city. The department has several officers stationed permanently overseas as part of its intelligence-gathering network.
El-Faisal began a corresponding with the undercover police officer in November 2016, court papers said. He offered to help him join the Islamic State group, telling him, “I can link u with someone there.”
The undercover officer told el-Faisal he was certified to perform first aid and wanted to assist foreign fighters in the region, authorities said. The cleric soon connected the undercover officer with an unnamed co-conspirator who texted the officer, “I live in R,” meaning Raqqa.
The co-conspirator told the undercover officer “in substance that ‘now is the time to come … We need people in the medical field,’” court papers said.
The man also cautioned the officer that he should “be ready for anything.”