BOSTON—Ever since anti-Muslim activist Pam Geller held a “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Texas in early May for a $10,000 cash prize, ISIS has been having a field day with America’s budding population of homegrown terrorists, inspiring them to commit acts of violence.
The contest has brought American ISIS cheerleaders out of the woodwork, fueling the terror group’s US social media campaign, and possibly turning alleged ISIS wannabes into lone wolf attackers. In response, the federal government has acted aggressively, even pressing charges against people who have not yet committed violent acts, but who appear, at most, sympathetic to ISIS. And that has civil liberties groups on edge.
The latest person to fall into the Geller/ISIS hate trap is Nicholas Rovinski, 24, according to federal prosecutors. He appeared in a Boston court Friday for charges he materially supported the terrorist group by plotting with Usaama Rahim, 26, and David Wright, 25, to behead her in retaliation for the Texas event.
Geller, who previously gained notoriety by suggesting that President Barack Obama was Malcolm X’s Muslim love child, has found her way back into the spotlight after the Charlie Hedbo attacks in Paris earlier this year, when the Kouachi brothers gunned down 11 cartoonists for depicting the image of Muhammad. An al-Qaeda branch in Yemen said the brothers carried out the attack on their behalf. A third attacker, Amedy Coulibaly, who coordinated his own attacks on a kosher supermarket with the brothers’, said he acted in the name of ISIS.
When Geller held her Texas contest on May 3, it ended in the bloody death of two potential assailants, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two ISIS wannabes from Phoenix.
ISIS later claimed the attackers as their own, and called for her slaughter.
“The Islamic apologists say I am ‘provocative’ for standing against sharia,” Geller wrote to The Daily Beast on Friday.
Geller then compared herself to the State of Israel, the World Trade Center towers, and beheaded ISIS captives reporters James Foley and Steve Sotloff, and humanitarian volunteer Alan Henning, among others, asking if they weren’t “provocative,” too.
“Was Daniel Pearl ‘provocative’? Was James Foley, Steve Sotloff, Alan Henning, et al. ‘provocative’? Were the shoppers at the kosher deli, Hyper Cacher ‘provocative’?” she wrote. “Were the World Trade Center towers ‘provocative’?”
“ISIS is here. The war is here. They are targeting for death (of) Americans on American soil,” she wrote.
Yet, despite claiming the attack as their own, ISIS has provided no evidence they directed or even communicated with the shooters before the attack. The only publicly known connection to ISIS and the would-be attackers at Garland’s “Draw Muhammad” event is Simpson’s final tweet directing people to follow an ISIS leader.
“May Allah accept us as mujahideen,” his tweet said, along with the hashtag #texasattack.
The connection between Rovinski and ISIS appears to be even less direct.
In late May, several weeks after the event in Garland, Rovinski and his Boston friends Rahim and Wright met on a damp beach, according to the complaint. Rovinski had invited the two over to discuss their plans to murder Geller.
“I’ve been wanting to meet up with you to discuss some important aspects that I think you might, you might enjoy,” he told Wright on the phone.
“Oh, that sounds so wonderful,” Wright replied, and then texted Rahim about the plan. “He wishes to speak on some juiciness.”
Rahim was Wright’s uncle. According to the complaint, Wright and Rovinski met a year ago on Facebook.
In the complaint, Geller is listed as “Intended Victim-1” and the organizer of a conference in Garland, Texas on May 3, but Boston law enforcement sources have already confirmed that she was the intended target.
Rahim is now dead. He was shot to death on June 2 just before 7 a.m. in a Roslindale parking lot by a Boston Police officer and an FBI agent. He was allegedly about to get on a bus when law enforcement approached him and he refused to put down a 10-inch knife. The Joint Terror Task Force had been listening to his phone calls, and the two had heard Rahim tell Wright that morning that he had changed his plans. Instead of Geller, he was going to go after the “boys in blue”—or Boston cops—instead. The incident is currently under investigation.
In the criminal complaint, the terror organization notes that on May 5, ISIS called for Geller’s “slaughter” on the website justpasteit.com, and Wright was aware of the call for her head. Geller is reportedly now under 24-hour protection and no one made it to her home in New York.
ISIS was calling for attacks on cops, too. On May 24 the day before Rahim allegedly bought his knife on Amazon, ISIS fighter and recruiter Abu Sa’eed al-Britani wrote, “Go stab an officer & go prison where u can worship Allah without distraction,” according to the International Business Times.
Shortly after Rahim’s death, Wright was arrested and put in federal custody for conspiracy and obstruction charges for allegedly telling Rahim to destroy his own phone before he carried out his plan.
None of the three alleged conspirators appear to have any formal ties to the terrorist group they so admired. Instead, like Simpson and Soofi, Rovinski and Wright were enthusiasts, according to the complaint, products of what US intelligence officials are now calling “terrorism gone viral.”
Rovinski posted his support on YouTube videos and Twitter. The Daily Beast previously reported that Rahim “liked” ISIS on Facebook.
The government says they uncovered proven ties to ISIS through voluntary interviews with Wright and Rovinski when they were questioned after Rahim’s death. They both allegedly waived their Miranda rights.
Shannon Erwin of the Muslim Justice League added that Wright was denied counsel during the interview with the agents.
Wright’s lawyer, Jessica Hedges, is upset by this. After her client’s court appearance last week, she said that “in enforcing the law, [the government should] abide by the law.”
Nonetheless, Special Agent Joseph Galietta wrote that Wright was open about his support for ISIS in the affidavit, and said he got Rovinski interested in the terrorist group, too.
Rovinski allegedly told agents he “was drawn to the teachings of the ISIL because they represent the most pure and honest form of the religion.”
But sympathizing with terrorist beliefs is not a crime. Neither Wright nor Rovinski have been charged with Geller’s attempted murder and unlike Wright, Rovinski is not charged in the conspiracy to attack cops. Rahim allegedly came to that decision on his own at 5 a.m., two hours before he was killed.
At this point, Boston is all too familiar with terrorist cases. The Boston bombing trial just wrapped up last month. But the area has had cases involving material support to terrorists, too.
The most famous case is that of Tarek Mehanna, who was sentenced to 17 years for translating al-Qaeda propaganda without having any official affiliation or communication with the group. The verdict sparked outcry among civil liberties advocates, who believed the jury came to a verdict based on Mehanna’s beliefs, rather than any material support he provided to the group.
“It’s official. There is a Muslim exception to the First Amendment,” Carol Rose, the president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Boston Globe after the verdict.
Matthew Segal, the legal director of ACLUM, says he’s waiting to see how the government tries Rovinski’s case. “The government’s decision to charge material support creates a real risk that they can fold into this case—facts that have more to do with constitutional beliefs than they do criminal actions,” he said.
But if Wright and Rovinski are convicted on what some call vague material support charges, they can’t say they didn’t see it coming. On May 29, Wright explained to Rovinski the law they would both eventually be charged with at length.
“[I]t’s very general and material support says that anyone providing a physical body, meaning if you’re going over there, providing a physical body, or you’re providing wealth, money or you’re providing arms, weaponry, this is considered material support and you could be charged. However… they made it so general now, where this is why they’ve been arresting so many people. They’ve been arresting them because once they read that they intend on going over to the State, they arrest them,” Wright said, according to the complaint.
“They made it so general now where they can manipulate and get you ... on material support just for speaking … positively about this.”