An Iranian man who came to Maine as a refugee in 2009 became radicalized in his Islamic faith while living here and was fighting for the Islamic State when he was killed last year in Lebanon, according to newly unsealed federal court documents.
Adnan Fazeli, 38, most recently of Freeport, came under investigation by the FBI for his connection to the terrorist group shortly after he left his job at Dubai Auto in Portland to fly to Turkey on Aug. 13, 2013, and never returned.
Fazeli, who also went by the names Abu Nawaf and Abu Abdullah Al-Ahwazi, was killed on Jan. 23, 2015, in a battle near Ras Baalbek in Lebanon as part of an Islamic State attack force of about 150 that was thwarted by the Lebanese army.
Those details, which were never revealed publicly before, were contained in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland last Oct. 27 by Maine State Police Detective George Loder, who was acting as a member of an FBI task force investigating whether other people were aware of Fazeli’s plans to fight for the Islamic State, helped him travel to the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon area or supported his efforts there. The affidavit remained under seal during the investigation, which ended with no criminal charges.
The affidavit gives the accounts of four anonymous informants for the FBI who described how Fazeli’s behavior began to change about a year after he came to the Portland area through Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services. They told the FBI that Fazeli frequently watched hours of Islamic videos online, grew a beard and began making anti-American remarks while at an Iraqi market in Portland.
While the informants are not named in the affidavit, Fazeli’s nephew, Ebrahim Fazeli, told the Portland Press Herald on Monday that he informed the FBI about his uncle after Adnan Fazeli called the family from Turkey. The affidavit describes one of the informants as a close relative of Fazeli’s.
“Fazeli’s change in behavior alienated him from many of his Shia and moderate Sunni friends in the area. However, there were a few local Sunnis who supported his fervor and treated him with a great deal of respect. Fazeli started holding occasional religious meetings at his home in Freeport,” Loder said in the affidavit, describing what one informant had said.
Ebrahim Fazeli, 25, said the family was unaware of his uncle’s plans to leave the United States. His uncle had become more religious and grew a substantial beard, but the nephew said no one realized he had become radicalized.
“That wasn’t enough for me to think an educated, smart guy has it in him to join an insane group of people,” said Ebrahim Fazeli, who lives in the Greater Portland area.
The family only learned of Fazeli’s journey when he contacted his wife from overseas, Ebrahim Fazeli said. He described that phone call as “crushing,” and shortly after, Ebrahim Fazeli contacted authorities to notify them.
“I was more worried about my aunt and the kids,” Ebrahim Fazeli said. “I wanted to protect them from him. It was very clear to me that they weren’t important to him. That made it easier to make the call.”
Fazeli’s brother, Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, is a physician in Maine and currently serves as chairman of the board of the Maine Medical Association.
Contacted Monday night, Dr. Fazeli declined to comment, citing concern for his brother’s widow and three children.
One of the informants told the FBI that Fazeli fled Iran in 2007 or 2008 after being notified that he was going to be arrested by the Iranian government as a dissident.
“Fazeli decided not to turn himself in and instead he left his family and fled for Syria. Fazeli’s family later joined him and they fled Syria for Lebanon because they feared the Syrian government would deport them back to Iran,” the affidavit says.
Fazeli initially came to the United States as a refugee in 2009, but did not adapt well. He told one informant that he hated Iran because the government was anti-Sunni and felt the United States had done nothing to help. Although Fazeli was raised a Shia Muslim, his family was not devout, one of the informants said. His behavior began to change while in the U.S., and he converted to Wahhabism, an austere form of Sunni Islam.
Catholic Charities in Portland said Fazeli tried to receive social services from the organization but was told that because he had come to Maine from another U.S. city after he’d immigrated to the U.S., he was not eligible for services in Portland.
Records in state court in Portland indicate that Fazeli and his wife, Jahan Elhai, were evicted from their former apartment at 40 Prospect St. in Westbrook on July 19, 2012. Further details in the eviction case no longer exist, because Portland District Court shreds resolved cases after they are more than three years old.
The affidavit in federal court says that investigators determined that Fazeli deposited $14,500 in cash in a bank account for his employer, Dubai Auto, on June 5, 2013. He later used a Dubai Auto debit card linked to that account to buy a round-trip plane ticket from Boston to Frankfurt to Istanbul. He departed on Aug. 13, 2013, and was set to return to Boston via Toronto on Nov. 3, 2013, but never boarded the return flight.
It’s not clear why Fazeli used Dubai Auto’s bank account to buy the ticket.
Hassan Najed, the current owner of the garage, said he bought the business three months ago and didn’t know Fazeli. Attempts to reach the previous owner were not successful Monday night.
While Fazeli was abroad, he continued to communicate by Skype chats with at least one of the informants, who later shared videos of the chats with FBI investigators. In one video, Fazeli said that he and his Islamic State allies could kill 1,000 enemies for every 10 of their own killed. In another video, he wore a khaki camouflage military uniform and inquired whether any U.S. government authorities had begun asking questions about him.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has developed a strong recruiting effort online for its terrorist state, which has gained control of parts of Iraq and Syria as Syria’s civil war has spilled across national borders, including into Lebanon. The effort has drawn disaffected foreigners from many countries, including the United States, who are ideologically motivated to fight for its fundamentalist, violent cause.
Nicholas J. Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before Congress in 2015 that more than 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries are believed to have gone to Syria to take part in the civil war since that country’s conflict began. Most of those foreign fighters have come from the Middle East and North Africa, but more than 3,400 westerners are estimated to have joined the fight in Syria. Of those westerners, more than 150 from the U.S. are believed to have traveled or tried to travel to Syria, from a variety of backgrounds and locations.
Fazeli’s relative called the FBI on Jan. 26, 2015, to report that Fazeli had been killed, according to the affidavit. The same relative emailed a copy of a news article in Arabic from the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar to the FBI on Jan. 28, 2015, that describes how “tens” of ISIS fighters were killed in a clash in Ras Baalbek, a Lebanese Christian town near the Syrian border threatened by both the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria. The article listed one of the dead as Abu Abdullah Al-Ahwazi, Fazeli’s other name.
It is unclear what else Fazeli did during his time with the Islamic State, whether he took part in any other battles or carried out any violence in the group’s name.
Loder filed the affidavit in federal court seeking search warrants for Fazeli’s gmail and Facebook accounts because he was suspected of providing support to a foreign terrorist organization. Although investigators executed the search warrants in October and returned the warrants to the court in December, authorities filed for an extension in April to keep the warrants under seal while they sought the aid of Arabic and Farsi linguists to help translate all the material, court records say.
The prosecutor who headed the investigation, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy, said Monday that at the conclusion of the investigation, his office is no longer considering charges against anyone for aiding Fazeli.
“There is very little we can say in investigative matters beyond what is in public records,” Murphy said, declining to reveal anything further about the investigation.
‘HE WAS A MODEL STUDENT’
Fazeli’s brother, the physician, wrote a Facebook post in January 2015 that said his brother had died unexpectedly. According to Jabbar Fazeli’s post, Adnan Fazeli initially came to Philadelphia in 2008 and then moved to Portland.
Officials at the University of Southern Maine said Fazeli had been a computer engineering student and took undergraduate courses as a computer science major in the spring, summer and fall sessions in 2009. In spring 2010, he enrolled in a single course but withdrew, according to USM spokesman Bob Stein.
He likely completed coursework elsewhere because he enrolled in the USM computer science graduate program in summer 2010, and took graduate courses in the summer 2010, fall 2010 and spring 2011 sessions.
Reza Jalali, coordinator of Multicultural Student Affairs at USM, knew Fazeli and was shocked by the news.
“He was very, very bright. I’m really in shock and disbelief,” Jalali said. “I did not see any changes while he was a student here. He was a model student.”
Before coming to the United States, Fazeli had been a college student in Iran at a university Jalali compared to MIT. Fazeli talked extensively about how he had been persecuted in Iran for being Sunni. He told Jalali that he knew that because of his ethnicity and his religion, “he would not get far in Iran.”
Jalali said Fazeli self-identified as Arab, not Iranian, because he came from the southern and western part of Iran. In Maine, he mingled primarily with Iraqis.
“He talked about enjoying religious freedom here. That’s why I am so shocked,” Jalali said. “He praised this society for its openness.
“How he could go through that transformation, that’s a mystery. That’s quite heartbreaking. It reminds us of the power of social media, brainwashing bright, educated men and turn them into fighters or killers.”
Neighbors of the family in Freeport described Fazeli as quiet, saying his wife was friendlier than he. When the couple arrived in the neighborhood, a neighbor who identified himself only by his first name, Mike, said Fazeli’s wife wore traditional Muslim dress, but by the time her husband had disappeared and she moved away, she no longer wore a headscarf and seemed more “Americanized.”
Faysal Manahe, the manager of Sindibad Market near the auto repair shop where Fazeli worked as a translator, said Fazeli was quiet and did not talk much to other people. Manahe said he met Fazeli during a one-week period when Fazeli came into his store for food several times a day. He said Fazeli never talked about religion or politics.
“He had a bad situation. He was fighting with his wife and he lived at the garage for about a week,” Manahe said.
During that time, Manahe told Fazeli he was welcome to use the store’s bathroom and kitchen.
“He was living there and he just disappeared,” Manahe said. “Some people say he went back to Iraq.”
Manahe said it was difficult to believe Fazeli left to join the Islamic State. He said Fazeli had just had a son, and had just arrived from overseas a few years earlier.
“Why would you just go right back?” Manahe asked.
Ebrahim Fazeli, the nephew, said his deepest concern is for his aunt and her three children. He asked for privacy for the family.
“Our family were the ones that initiated this investigation,” Ebrahim Fazeli said. “We did it long before all these terrorist organizations were in the news.”
In the years since, the nephew said he has speculated about what caused his uncle to leave his family and join “some twisted cause.”
“I think the fact that he might not have reached his potential in his own eyes,” Ebrahim Fazeli said. “They offered him a way out of his own disappointment.”
“This could happen to a well-educated person,” he added. “This could happen to a non-educated person. This could happen to a person born in America. This could happen to a person who immigrated. You can’t go into people’s heads if their intent is to hide it from their immediate family.”
Staff Writers Noel K. Gallagher and Kevin Miller contributed to this report.