The Lonesome Deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Ter­ror

How a ji­hadi wannabe in Bos­ton got an ISIS leader whacked in Syria.

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - BY MICHELE R. MCPHEE


IT WAS DARK AND DANK EARLY on the morn­ing of June 2, 2015, as a pelt­ing rain slicked the roads and pinged off the win­dows of a town­house in the bu­colic blue-col­lar Bos­ton neigh­bor­hood of Roslin­dale. The noise woke Usaamah Ab­dul­lah Rahim with a start just be­fore 5 a.m., but he was happy to be awake. It was a good day to die.

He had be­gun pre­par­ing for this day a week ear­lier with a buy­ing spree on Ama­, pur­chas­ing three mil­i­tary-style knives. He also bought a sharp­en­ing tool and a mes­sen­ger bag to hide the blades. To­tal cost for his weapons of ter­ror: $395.19.

Rahim was 26, a Brook­line High grad­u­ate who still lived with his par­ents in a com­plex sur­rounded by metic­u­lously groomed land­scap­ing and pa­trolled by guards around the clock. He had un­der­gone in re­cent years a dra­matic makeover from the gold chains and back­ward base­ball caps he wore in high school. He now had a beard, shaved his head and face clean, and he liked to wear long white robes, even when he wasn’t at­tend­ing Fri­day prayers at the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Bos­ton mosque.

When those mas­sive blades ar­rived, Rahim glee­fully called his nephew, David Wright, a for­mer foot­ball player whose 6-foot-8 frame could have made him a stand­out line­man. Ex­cept, his coach says, Wright took the “easy way out most of the time.” He grad­u­ated from high school, barely, and got a job, briefly, at Home De­pot, but filed a dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaint on his first day, claim­ing his man­ager was of­fended when he wouldn’t re­turn her hand­shake (“Due to my re­li­gious be­liefs [Mus­lim], I told her I could not shake it”).

He was fired months later and said it was be­cause of his reli­gion. The state threw out the com­plaint, but that didn’t stop Wright from brag­ging about the big set­tle­ment he was go­ing to get—cash, he told his ji­hadi com­pa­tri­ots, in­clud­ing an FBI in­for­mant, that would help fund at­tacks.

Wright and his bum­bling cell of at­tack­ers were re­cruited by Ju­naid Hus­sain, the no­to­ri­ous pro­pa­gan­dist for the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group (ISIS), who urged them and other young Amer­i­cans to get off their mom’s couch and join the ji­had by launch­ing at­tacks in the U.S. He was so good at se­duc­ing losers like Wright that he climbed to No. 3 on the Pen­tagon’s se­cret ISIS kill list, but for all his com­puter savvy, his sloppy com­mu­ni­ca­tions with Rahim did him in. A lit­tle more than two months after Rahim got out of bed that wet morn­ing de­ter­mined to slaugh­ter in­fi­dels, Hus­sain got a bomb dropped on his head by a drone steered from Ne­vada.

The in­ter­cepted cor­re­spon­dences be­tween Hus­sain and Rahim of­fer a rare in­sight into how ISIS is scram­bling to bol­ster its dwin­dling ranks in the Mid­dle East with the un­em­ployed and dis­il­lu­sioned in the West, us­ing the in­ter­net and en­crypted apps in a macabre ver­sion of on­line dat­ing—isis re­cruiters stroke the egos of wannabe ji­hadis and con­vince them that a mar­tyr’s death is far bet­ter than spend­ing yet an­other night in their par­ents’ base­ment. Now that ISIS has been routed on the bat­tle­field, ter­ror­ism ex­perts pre­dict there will be more and

more lone wolf at­tacks in the West.

‘Them Juicy Necks’

Around the time Wright filed that com­plaint against Home De­pot, he changed his name, telling friends and fam­ily to start call­ing him Dawud Sharif Ab­dul Khaliq. The once smil­ing gi­ant who col­lected Pokémon cards and talked about be­com­ing a rap star started wear­ing flow­ing robes and pray­ing in the front yard of his mother’s apart­ment. His Face­book page be­gan to cel­e­brate the deaths of U.S. Marines over­seas, and he posted what pros­e­cu­tors called his very own ISIS man­i­festo.

He also made a new friend: a Mus­lim man who be­gan to en­gage him in con­ver­sa­tions about ISIS, an ap­par­ently like-minded “ji­hadi” work­ing for the feds. In­for­ma­tion from that in­for­mant helped the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice of Mas­sachusetts ob­tain war­rants that al­lowed the Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Force (JTTF) to lis­ten as Wright and Rahim plot­ted and fol­low them around, which would even­tu­ally help them track down Hus­sain, who by then was con­sid­ered one of the world’s most dan­ger­ous men.

By the time he was 20, the one­time hack­tivist was no longer dan­ger­ous just be­hind a key­board; he was a full-fledged Bri­tish ji­hadi who had adopted the name Abu Hus­sain al-bri­tani. He mar­ried one of his on­line fan­girls, the pretty blond Bri­tish punk rocker Sally Jones, for­mer guitarist for the girl band Krunch, who con­verted to Is­lam be­fore mar­ry­ing Hus­sain. (They were nick­named “Mr. and Mrs. Ter­ror” by Amer­i­can and Bri­tish tabloids.) Both made their way into Syria in 2013, where they be­gan their slick pro­pa­ganda cam­paign, us­ing so­cial me­dia to re­cruit for ISIS. A typ­i­cal Hus­sain tweet: “You can sit at home and play Call of Duty or you can come here and re­spond to the real call of duty….”

One of his ea­ger dis­ci­ples from the U.S. was Rahim. With Hus­sain push­ing him, Rahim and his nephew Wright be­gan to pre­pare for an at­tack on the in­fi­del, news he couldn’t keep to him­self. Of course, nei­ther man knew the Bos­ton FBI was lis­ten­ing in when Rahim called Wright to brag about his haul of knives from Ama­zon. “I got my­self a nice lit­tle tool,” he said. “You know, it’s good for, like, carv­ing wood and, you know, like, carv­ing sculp­tures… and you know.…”

Wright laughed, as did Rahim. Both knew the knife was for de­cap­i­tat­ing a woman who had demeaned “our Mes­sen­ger, Al­lah.”

“Oh, man, I just, I can’t wait, you know,” Rahim told his nephew about their long-dis­cussed fatwa.

Wright gig­gled, say­ing that their vic­tim would soon be “like, think­ing with [her] head on your chest,” a ref­er­ence, the FBI says, to the ISIS prac­tice of us­ing the im­age of a sev­ered head on a vic­tim’s chest in its pro­pa­ganda videos.

That chill­ing con­ver­sa­tion was recorded on May 26, 2015, just weeks after ISIS had is­sued an edict call­ing for the ex­e­cu­tion of Pamela Geller, a blog­ger who had or­ga­nized the “Ji­had Watch Muham­mad Art Ex­hibit and Car­toon Con­test” in Gar­land, Texas. That May 3, 2015, ex­hibit nearly turned into a blood­bath after what Home­land Se­cu­rity De­part­ment of­fi­cials would later call the first ISIS at­tack on Amer­i­can soil.

Hus­sain had spent weeks on­line re­cruit­ing one of the shoot­ers in that at­tack, El­ton Simp­son, who brought along his room­mate. Both men wore body ar­mor and were equipped with three ri­fles, three hand­guns and 1,500 rounds of am­mu­ni­tion when they jumped out of their ve­hi­cle out­side Gar­land’s Cur­tis Cul­well Cen­ter and opened fire on two se­cu­rity of­fi­cers. Be­fore the heav­ily armed ji­hadis made their way in­side, a SWAT team showed up and shot the homegrown mil­i­tants dead.

Still, Hus­sain praised the men on Twit­ter as the at­tack un­folded: “Al­lah Ak­bar !!!! Two of our broth­ers just opened fire.” He con­tin­ued to urge other re­cruits to kill “those That In­sult the Prophet.” Hus­sain, ac­cord­ing to court records, had cor­re­sponded with at least nine Amer­i­cans who were later killed by law en­force­ment or ar­rested, in­clud­ing a North Carolina man named No­jan Sul­li­van, the son of a U.S. Marine, who planned an at­tack sim­i­lar to the Isis-in­spired one in a Or­lando, Florida, night­club in 2016 and to video­tape it—a prom­ise, fed­eral of­fi­cials said, he made to Hus­sain di­rectly. Sul­li­van was ar­rested in June 2015 and was sen­tenced to life in prison this year, prompt­ing his fa­ther to tell a North Carolina news­pa­per, “As par­ents, we’re not happy. As Amer­i­cans, we ac­cept what hap­pened.”

A month after the Marine’s son was ar­rested, the son of a Bos­ton po­lice cap­tain who had pledged al­le­giance to ISIS was busted in west­ern Mas­sachusetts after he bought four weapons, in­clud­ing two au­to­matic ri­fles with large am­mu­ni­tion mag­a­zines, from an FBI in­for­mant, guns that he planned to use to shoot up an un­named univer­sity while wear­ing a Go­pro cam­era, fed­eral of­fi­cials said. Alexan­der Cic­colo had been fol­lowed by the Bos­ton FBI since Septem­ber 11, 2014, when his fa­ther turned him in, ter­ri­fied by a text mes­sage he had re­ceived from his son that praised ISIS. It said “Amer­ica is Satan” and in­cluded the threat “I’m not afraid to die for the cause,” ac­cord­ing to a crim­i­nal com­plaint. He is slated to go on trial later this year. Bos­ton Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Wil­liam Evans called Cic­colo's fa­ther a brave leader who made, "the in­cred­i­bly hard de­ci­sion to turn in his own blood to save him from shed­ding the blood of in­no­cent peo­ple."

Hus­sain also found will­ing mar­tyrs in Wright and Rahim, who de­cided to fin­ish what Simp­son had failed to do. In early May 2015, they brought an­other Amer­i­can, Ni­cholas Rovin­ski, a Catholic con­vert to Is­lam who was work­ing at a Stop & Shop, into their plan. The three men met on a des­o­late beach on May 23, 2015, and agreed that they would ex­e­cute Geller in New York City in a few weeks. But Rahim grew im­pa­tient, so early on June 2 he slipped into black jeans and pulled a black hoodie over his head. Be­fore he left his par­ents’ home, he called Wright. “I’m go­ing on va­ca­tion right here in Mas­sachusetts,” he said in the 5 a.m. call. “It’s go­ing to be lo­cal.” He gig­gled as he ex­plained his new fatwa to Wright: He was go­ing to kill cops. “I’m just go­ing to, ah, go after them, those boys in blue. Cuz, ah, it’s the eas­i­est tar­get.”

“Them juicy necks is in­tense!” Wright said. “Dang! Sub­han Al­lah! [Glory be to Al­lah.] ... I feel… so left out.” He then urged Rahim to say good­bye to his loved ones and write a sui­cide note for his par­ents.

“Ji­had,” Rahim told Wright be­fore end­ing their call, “is a way out, and it’s a way to be with Al­lah and to get out of this Dunya [worldly life]… to be amongst the com­pany of the right­eous.”

At 6:53 a.m., he left his house and headed, of­fi­cials be­lieve, to the Mas­sachusetts Bay Trans­porta­tion Author­ity’s For­est Hills sta­tion in Bos­ton, where he could find “boys in blue” to de­cap­i­tate.

Shortly after 7 a.m., the JTTF sur­veil­lance team called for backup as Rahim walked to­ward a CVS park­ing lot. A po­lice and FBI ar­rived but kept their dis­tance while mem­bers of the JTTF team ap­proached Rahim, who was on his cell­phone, telling his brother, “Un­for­tu­nately, you won’t be see­ing me again.” Con­fused, the brother handed the phone to their fa­ther, who heard a po­lice of­fi­cer yell, “Hands in the air!” Rahim re­sponded with “Do I know you?” and then pulled out his Marine fight­ing knife, prompt­ing the JTTF mem­bers to un­hol­ster their guns and re­peat­edly tell Rahim to drop the knife. He re­sponded with “You drop yours!”

Rahim’s fa­ther, alarmed and lis­ten­ing to all this, screamed into the phone, “Where are you?”

Rahim didn’t an­swer his fa­ther. In­stead, he ad­dressed the three men who were clos­ing in on him with their guns drawn: “Why don’t you shoot me?” Rahim’s fa­ther then heard three shots. One bul­let hit Rahim in the shoul­der. A sec­ond hit him in the chest. A third ripped into his groin. He was dead at the scene.

Less than an hour later, fed­eral agents were in­ter­ro­gat­ing Wright in his mother’s kitchen. Dur­ing a six-hour in­ter­view, the 538-pound Wright took seven bath­room breaks, ate two large meals, pulled out a prayer rug to pray twice and once fell asleep dur­ing ques­tion­ing.

Ex­e­cu­tion by Drone

A lit­tle more than two years later, on Septem­ber 20, 2017, Wright was in Court­room 18 in the ma­jes­tic John Joseph Moak­ley United States Court­house, a 10-story, $170 mil­lion build­ing built on South


Bos­ton’s wa­ter­front. It was in this build­ing that Bos­ton Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsar­naev was con­victed and sen­tenced to death in 2015, a trial Wright and his co­horts watched closely as they in­ter­acted with ISIS in Syria and plot­ted to “strike fear in the heart of the kuf­far.”

Wright had lost 200 pounds while in jail, and the long beard and shaved head he sported at the time of his ar­rest were gone, re­placed by neatly trimmed fa­cial hair and a tidy coif.

As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Stephanie Sieg­mann told ju­rors Wright “wanted to harm the United States more than the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ings.” But first he and his co-con­spir­a­tors had to honor the fatwa is­sued by ISIS to kill Geller.

Hus­sain is­sued the fatwa on his Twit­ter page, and ac­cord­ing to a recorded phone call be­tween Rahim and Wright, he even gave the bud­ding at­tack­ers an en­crypted file on Geller. A week be­fore Rahim was killed, he told Wright he had been in con­tact with “Mr. Hus­sain,” who pro­vided him with the file. It con­tained all of the rel­e­vant per­sonal in­for­ma­tion they would need to track and kill Geller.

Hus­sain and Rahim con­tin­ued to com­mu­ni­cate us­ing Twit­ter, the Kik app and text mes­sag­ing, and Rahim be­gan down­load­ing his fa­vorite Hus­sain tweets, in­clud­ing “The flames of war have only been kin­dled, bi’idhnil­lah [with Al­lah’s per­mis­sion] we shall set the tawagheet [tyrants] ablaze un­til they die in their rage against al-is­lam.”

And that war would soon be taken to the streets of Bos­ton by three un­likely men who all still lived with their moth­ers. They didn’t have much money or drive, but, act­ing U.S. At­tor­ney for New Eng­land Wil­liam Wein­reb would later ex­plain to re­porters, they were filled with ha­tred for their coun­try­men and were egged on by one of ISIS’S best re­cruiters.

What Wein­reb didn’t men­tion was that those com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween Hus­sain and Rahim were mon­i­tored, and what author­i­ties learned from that helped peo­ple in the Pen­tagon track Hus­sain in Syria. In early Au­gust 2015, Hus­sain pulled off one last at­tack on Amer­i­cans, of­fi­cials be­lieve, hack­ing into the Pen­tagon’s mil­i­tary records and re­leas­ing in­for­ma­tion on spe­cial op­er­a­tions sol­diers work­ing to elim­i­nate ISIS.

A few weeks later, he was trav­el­ing with two body­guards in Raqqa, Syria, when his con­voy was hit by a drone. Days later, Air Force Colonel Pa­trick Ry­der made a state­ment on be­half of the Pen­tagon, telling re­porters that Hus­sain, who had “sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal skills and ex­pressed a strong de­sire to kill Amer­i­cans,” was not go­ing to be re­cruit­ing any more lone wolf at­tack­ers. “He no longer poses a threat,” Ry­der said.

The Twinkie Ji­had

When I asked Hank Shaw, the FBI spe­cial agent in charge of the Bos­ton Field Of­fice, if the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Wright and his cell helped of­fi­cials track down Hus­sain, he said, “I can’t com­ment on that,” but mul­ti­ple law en­force­ment of­fi­cials told Newsweek ex­clu­sively that the JTTF’S in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Bos­ton’s ISIS wannabes pro­vided crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion that led to Hus­sain’s death.

The long-dis­tance ex­e­cu­tion of Hus­sain was ref­er­enced only in pass­ing dur­ing Wright’s trial. His at­tor­ney, Jes­sica Hedges, started her de­fense by declar­ing that her client was a “com­plete id­iot” and then be­gan to lay out what re­porters re­ferred to as a “Twinkie de­fense.” She said her client was too obese to be a dan­ger to so­ci­ety and noth­ing more than an un­em­ployed loser who slept all day and played video games all night in his mother’s house, liv­ing in “a world of fan­tas­ti­cal ideas.” Pledg­ing al­le­giance to ISIS was just a phase, she told the jury, like trad­ing Pokémon cards. “What David Wright wanted was to es­cape from the life that he had. He wanted ac­cep­tance…he was des­per­ate for at­ten­tion. He talked and he talked and he talked. Typed mostly.”

On Oc­to­ber 18, Wright was con­victed of plot­ting to be­head po­lice of­fi­cers and kill Amer­i­cans. He could be sen­tenced to life in prison. The week be­fore, Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence an­nounced that Sally Jones, the for­mer punk rocker known as the “White Widow” after her hus­band’s death, had also been killed by a bomb dropped by a U.S. Air Force Preda­tor nav­i­gated from Ne­vada. Bri­tish De­fense Sec­re­tary Michael Fal­lon would not pro­vide de­tails of the drone strike that killed the White Widow and her 12-yearold son, but he did say that the re­cruiter who had drawn dozens of young girls into the ISIS fight, many of them used as sex slaves for the mu­ja­hedeen, “was a le­git­i­mate tar­get” and was hit close to the bor­der of Syria and Iraq in June.

Rovin­ski, the fi­nal mem­ber of this in­ept cell, got off fairly lightly. On Septem­ber 22, 2016, he pleaded guilty, telling a judge “I should pay for my crimes.” He tes­ti­fied against Wright in ex­change for a promised 15- to 22-year sen­tence.

Ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings, Wright wasn’t happy about that be­trayal. He told a prison snitch he was go­ing to kill Rovin­ski and his fam­ily and even be­head Rovin­ski’s cat.


TEXAS JI­HAD Geller, left, was marked for death by ISIS; Hus­sain re­cruited Simp­son, right, to at­tack an event she set up in Gar­land, Texas, where Simp­son and Nadir Soofi, far left, car­ried out what Home­land Se­cu­rity called the first ISIS at­tack on U.S....

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