Florida ISIS Supporter Targeted Hard Rock Casino Tampa, Sentenced to 18 Years

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Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, a 26-year-old resident of Tampa, Florida, has been sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for attempting to provide material support to the terrorist organization ISIS.

The would-be-terrorist researched a string of high-profile Florida destinations, where he aimed to carry out a mass shooting. That included the Seminole’s Hard Rock Casino Tampa, as well as Bayshore Boulevard and the FBI’s Tampa Field Office.

Al-Azhari, a U.S. citizen who had spent a significant portion of his life abroad, adopted extremist Islamist/Salafist beliefs as a teenager before attempting to visit Syria and join ISIS in 2018. However, he was caught and deported back to the U.S., which was when the FBI began investigating his activities.

He was arrested in 2020 after an undercover investigation, and pled guilty to all charges in 2022. Late last week, Al-Azhari was sentenced to a minimum of 18 years in prison, to be followed by a lifetime of supervised release.

Al-Azhari’s Connections to Terrorism

Al-Azhari was released from prison in Saudi Arabia in 2018 following his conviction for supporting terrorism in Syria.

Upon his return to in the U.S. in December 2018, the FBI initiated an investigation into his potential material support for ISIS.

By April 2020, Al-Azhari had begun planning an attack in support of the terrorist organization, and had started acquiring multiple firearms. He conducted research and scouted potential targets in the Tampa Bay area, including the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa.

The Hard Rock venue is the most popular casino resort in Florida, attracting thousands of visitors a day and bringing a billion dollars in yearly venue.

Al-Azhari consumed ISIS propaganda, expressed support for the group, and pledged allegiance to ISIS through a bay’ah, an Islamic oath of allegiance.

He discussed seeking retribution for the U.S. imprisonment of Muslims, including ISIS fighters, as well as military actions in the Middle East.

“Al-Azhari rehearsed parts of his plans, including practicing statements that he would make during, or in connection with, his intention to support ISIS,” the official US Department of Justice Press Release said.

The Arrest and Sentencing

During April and May 2020, Al-Azhari had recorded interactions with an FBI undercover employee and a confidential human source (CHS).

He attempted to purchase firearms, including a fully automatic rifle, from the undercover employee, resulting in his arrest on state charges of carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

After his release from state custody, Al-Azhari continued his attempts to acquire firearms from the undercover employee.

He also met with undercover agents and tried to convert them to Islam, documents said.

He openly shared his affiliation with ISIS, plans to provide material support, and intention to send money to the terrorist organization.

Moreover, Al-Azhari attempted to enlist agents’ help for his ISIS-related plans and robbery schemes, requesting assistance in obtaining a Glock pistol and an unregistered silencer. Authorities apprehended Al-Azhari on May 24, 2020, when he took possession of the firearm and silencer.

The sentencing comes after Al-Azhari pleaded guilty to the charges in February 2023.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Risha Asokan and Cherie Krigsman for the Middle District of Florida, with assistance from Joshua Champagne and Paul Casey of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section.

Apprehending Al-Azhari before he went on his intended killing spree was a joint operation that included some of the biggest U.S. intelligence agencies.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, including Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Tampa Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the St. Petersburg Police Department, the Clearwater Police Department, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were all involved in the case.

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