Staff at a Welsh tech firm are caught up in an FBI probe into an IS plot that stretches from Bangladesh and Syria to the US
A Welsh firm that creates online systems for takeaways has been caught up in an FBI investigation into an elaborate Islamic State plot to fund attacks in the US and equip the group in the Middle East.
US security officials have warned that the alleged plot, which is detailed in newly released FBI documents, illustrates how IS is working hard to develop its international network.
The unsealed court files link British-Bangladeshi Muslims in Wales with a plot that saw funds flow to the US and military-grade aerial targeting equipment and electronic bug-sweeping equipment kits sent to the Middle East.
I was not aware it was going on. I was completely unaware what he was doing.
- Ataul Haque, brother of IS cyber expert
It ends with a deadly drone strike in Syria and the arrest of alleged plotters in Washington's suburbs, South Wales, and Dhaka in Bangladesh.
The case emerged this week after Mohamed Elshinawy, an American IS supporter arrested in 2015, pleaded guilty in a Maryland court to accepting nearly $9,000 from Bangladeshi companies and Ibacstel Electronics, based in the Welsh town of Newport, to finance an attack in the US.
From March to June 2015, the firms in Britain and Bangladesh sent Elshinawy, 32, from Edgewood in Maryland, thousands of dollars to carry out an attack. The money was disguised in a bid to evade detection.
Bought on eBay
Elshinawy, the FBI documents claim, pretended to buy Canon printers on eBay from Ibacstel as a cover to receive payment through PayPal. FBI officers say he may have taken inspiration from a deadly IS-linked gun attack on a Prophet Mohammed cartoon competition in Texas in May 2015.
Islamic State hacker Siful Haque Sujan was killed in an air strike in Syria in December 2015 (screengrab)
The recently released FBI documents, filed in a US federal court in Baltimore, claim that Elshinawy was part of a global network stretching from Bangladesh to Ibacstel's offices in Newport, near Cardiff. It was directed, the FBI documents show, by a now-dead senior IS official in Syria, Siful Sujan.
Sujan, a British-educated computer expert who was originally from Bangladesh, founded Ibacstel and several associated companies with his brother before travelling to Syria to become one of IS's top cyber experts.
The FBI documents paint a picture of several Ibacstel staff in Wales following instructions from Sujan to send money to Elshinawy in Maryland, and to buy military-grade equipment to ship to Turkey.
Sujan's brother Ataul Haque, 34, and company director Abdul Samad, 26, both feature extensively in the FBI documents.
In a series of exclusive interviews with Middle East Eye, both men denied any role in the alleged plot and said they were opposed to IS.
Ibactels' founder was killed by a US drone in December 2015 after leading a campaign to defeat surveillance and tracking by Western intelligence agencies.
The Pentagon said Sujan was killed in a drone campaign "striking at the head of the snake".
Haque and Samad say they did not know that Sujan planned to travel to Syria when he left Wales to set up a branch of the business in Turkey in 2015, or that he was arranging funding for IS attacks in the US.
However, the FBI documents claim that staff at Ibacstel, including Haque and Samad, played a key role in making 23 payments totalling $7,700 to Elshinawy.
The FBI documents also allege the two men were involved in the ordering and dispatch to Turkey of "bug sweep units" designed for counter-surveillance and scanning equipment to intercept radio transmissions.
The counter-surveillance equipment was sent to Ahmet Bayaltun in eastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, FBI officers claimed.
Little is known about Bayaltun other than that he is reported to co-own a Turkish firm which Russian officials have accused of supplying IS with equipment.
Turkey has denied the claims, but Turkish media reported in July 2015 that Bayaltun's name was found on packages found in a building abandoned by IS in the Syrian-Turkish border town of Tal Abyad.
The FBI documents also claim that Samad and Haque worked with Sujan to buy military-grade aerial targeting equipment from Canada worth $18,000.
US investigators noted that during intercepted discussions on Skype, Sujan stressed the need for secrecy because there was a "security war" between Muslims and the "kuffar," a derogatory term used to describe non-Muslims, the court records show.
The two men also discussed the purchase on the secure messaging app Telegram, the documents suggest.
The FBI documents show how IS used global links to bring weapons to Syria (AFP)
Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the programme on extremism at George Washington University and a former US intelligence officer, told MEE that the case highlights how IS is attempting to use individuals in the West to move money and provide logistical support to operations in Syria.
However, in interviews with MEE both Samad and Haque denied any link to IS or any knowledge of a plot to fund attacks in the US and to send military-grade equipment to Turkey.
Samad, who was released without charge after being questioned by UK police in December 2015, admitted that he had been "naive" in his dealings with Sujan but denied any link to the plot of IS. "Look how messed up Syria is," he said. "Islamic State is twisting a religion."
Samad added that he was aware his employer had some radical views but said that neither he nor Haque shared them.
He said that his role at the firm was his first job in IT and was used to ordering legimate equipment for the company and making payments.
Samad said he did not know that Sujan planned to travel to Syria. He also said he had expressed an interest in the ideology that motivates Islamic State.
He said: "I wanted to know more about Islamic State because I wanted to retaliate against the people approaching me to [indoctrinate] me. The people who travel to Syria don't think about the people they leave behind.
"This has dominated two years of my life. I had to cancel my honeymoon and holidays."
This has dominated two years of my life
- Abdul Samad, IT worker
Samad said he was questioned by counter-terrorism detectives over the case, but police told him he would not be charged.
Documents seen by MEE show that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to bring charges against Samad in March 2017 after struggling to cross the "threshold" for prosecution.
Haque, who moved to Spain after his brother was killed in a US strike, told MEE: "I'm a normal Muslim. I do not support Islamic State."
Haque said he knew his brother had travelled to Turkey, and believed he was opening a new branch of the business there. He said he did not know his brother had been radicalised.
'The whole family is suffering'
He said: "We followed his instructions. I was not aware it was going on. I was completely unaware what he was doing.
"If we did anything, and I'm not saying we did, we did it as employees of the company."
Haque said that several members of the family were arrested in Bangladesh at the same time at Samad's arrest and that his father had died in custody.
He added that there was no trace of Sujan's wife or two small children, who are believed to have travelled with him to Syria.
"The whole family is suffering through all of this," he said.
If we did anything, and I'm not saying we did, we did it as employees of the company
- Ataul Haque, brother of IS cyber expert
A spokesperson for counter-terrorism officers in Wales and Manchester, who are jointly investigating the case, said: "We have no comment to make on this investigation."
The case is significant, security experts say, because it is the first prosecution over the transfer of funds to IS supporters in the US and it shows how IS is turning to low-level fraud and less-regulated financial channels to fund attacks in the West.
Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at Buckingham University, told MEE the case was "worrying" and pointed to recent comments by former head of MI5 Jonathan Evans that the battle against IS and similar groups was a "generational problem".
Evans, who sits in the House of Lords, warned that the UK may face it for another "20 to 30 years".
Glees said: "Siful Haque Sujan is interesting because he is a UK citizen, went to a UK university and became an IT skills expert.
"Even though he himself is now dead, it seems, he represents the very kind of recruit that Islamic State needs if it is to flourish after the physical entity of Islamism has been destroyed as one imagines it will before too long.
"What's more, his money is being used to grow the next generation."
- Additional reporting by Suraj Sharma