A Chicago computer engineer was in federal court Friday afternoon after being charged with using social media to help ISIS recruit operatives, encourage people to carry out terrorist attacks and spread propaganda to support “violent jihad.”
Ashraf Al Safoo, 34, faces one count of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization, according to federal prosecutors.
Al Safoo — who sported a beard and was escorted by U.S. marshals while wearing an orange jumpsuit — said during a brief court appearance that he has a master’s degree in computer science and has worked in IT for a web development company in River North. By Friday afternoon, his staff bio on the company’s website was removed.
Al Safoo was taken into custody about 9:20 a.m. Wednesday. His next court appearance is scheduled for next Thursday.
A naturalized citizen, Al Safoo was born in Iraq and moved to Chicago in 2008, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit released Friday.
A 29-year-old brother of Al Safoo’s is serving a 12-year prison sentence for robbing two gas stations and a doughnut shop in the northwest suburbs in 2017, according to court records. He cut a clerk’s cheek with a knife in one holdup, police said.
Federal authorities allege Al Safoo and several unindicted co-conspirators were active members of the Khattab Media Foundation — a propaganda outfit with a “sworn bayat, or an oath of allegiance, to ISIS.”
“Al-Safoo and the [co-conspirators] were working at the direction of and in cooperation with ISIS and ISIS’ media office, created and disseminated ISIS propaganda, recruited for ISIS, encouraged individuals to carry out attacks on behalf of ISIS, and supported violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’ media office,” the affidavit reads.
Khattab spreads propaganda across several social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and one other, which federal authorities decline to identify.
Last March, Al Safoo invited a purported ISIS sympathizer — who was actually an undercover federal officer — to join a Khattab discussion group. The undercover officer found a treasure trove of ISIS propaganda.
“After a discussion with Al Safoo about assisting with proofreading draft publications, [the undercover officer] was added to the ‘Writer’s Group’ and ‘the Staff Group’ group on Social Media Application, which provided [the undercover officer] all communications that remained in these groups going back to June 30, 2017, which total over 1,000 pages,” the affidavit reads.
Al Safoo is alleged to have taken part in creating and disseminating several pieces of ISIS propaganda.
In December 2017, federal authorities say, Khattab created and published a computer-animated video called “Our gifts are ready,” which depicted families standing around a Christmas tree with a castle — bearing a strong resemblance to “Cinderella Castle” at Walt Disney World — in the background.
The video then cuts to a brief clip of President Donald Trump saying, “You have to fight fire…” before the video cuts to explosions, which appear to be occurring in Syria, “with images of dead and injured children being pulled from the rubble,” the affidavit states.
The video ends with a warning about future violence to be carried out by ISIS.
“The video cuts to all black with the word ‘Now listen you dogs of hell. This is a message and more are going to follow. This is just the beginning. Our gifts are now ready,'” according to the affidavit. “The video shows a present under the Christmas tree that contains a bomb with a timer ticking down before cutting to a news clip of a mass shooting taking place.”