PHOTO VIA UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA/FACEBOOK
A thirst for information led him to an ISIS website. There, he discovered how to meet with radical Islamic groups to decide which among them the American could assist. He bought a one-way ticket from Orlando and arrived in Istanbul, Turkey, with determination in his brown eyes.
He visited a cafe where he asked the waiter how to get to Syria.
Why do you want to go, the waiter asked.
“To get to family members,” he said, lying.
The 5-foot-9 man followed the waiter’s instructions religiously. He found a bus driver who told him to return later with $50 in cash. He came back in the dark of night when he was picked up in a minivan along with others. He handed the money to the driver and was told he would be entering Syria illegally. Later, the group was dropped off at a dirt path on the side of a road.
They continued walking. He was getting close. Closer, so terribly close to his destination.
Then the Turkish army arrested him. His mission had failed.
Mohamed Fathy Suliman, 34, lived most of his life in Florida but in the years after he was arrested in Turkey in 2014, he traveled extensively overseas until he was arrested in India in January 2021 on a U.S. criminal warrant. The account of his efforts to slip into Syria came from his interview with government officials, included in a criminal affidavit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
The Justice Department has charged him with a felony, attempting to provide material support, including himself, to ISIS. Court filings in the case make clear the government tracked his movements closely across Europe after he was caught in Turkey and let go.
The government said Suliman’s radicalization dated back to 2009 – during a period when he was attending Santa Fe College. Other testimony in his court case indicated it could have been as early as 2006 when he briefly attended the University of Florida.
If convicted, Suliman faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. It’s not clear when – or whether – he might face trial: Suliman suffers from serious psychiatric problems, according to federal court records. His trial judge has tentatively set court dates several times but has continually delayed the case because Suliman has been determined to be mentally incompetent to face criminal charges.
The next trial date is set for July 18 in Gainesville, but his next mental competency evaluation wasn’t expected to be available for the judge until mid-August, an assistant U.S. attorney, Stephen Kunz, told the judge this week.
In a handwritten letter last year to the trial judge, Allen C. Winsor, Suliman tried to convert him to Islam before demanding that he dismiss the criminal case against him. Winsor struck Suliman’s motion as improper because it wasn’t submitted by his court-appointed defense lawyer.
He wrote again to the judge earlier this year, encouraging the judge to convert to Islam and imploring him to dismiss the criminal charges against him. “I appreciate your prompt reply overthrowing this case ASAP and demanding my discharge” from prison, he wrote.
The judge this week urged Suliman’s public defender, Darren Johnson, to help Suliman understand that communications to the judge should go through Johnson. “Hopefully that word is getting back to your client that he should be going through you,” Winsor said.
Questions remain: How does an Alachua County resident, a former student of both the University of Florida and Santa Fe College, become accused of conspiring to help terrorists?
Suliman was born in Washington in June 1987. He later moved to Florida and attended Spruce Creek High School in Volusia County from 2002 to 2005. The school was considered one of the best in the country.
There were around 2,000 people in the graduating class, said 36-year-old Rianon Grisham, who graduated with Suliman. There were cliques but not bullies.
“Everyone fit in perfectly – including him,” she said.
She wasn’t close to Suliman but would smile and say hi in the hallways. When she heard the news about his criminal case, she was disturbed and sick to her stomach.
“He just seemed really nice to me,” she said. “This is a huge shocker. I was not expecting that from anyone in my class.”
After high school, he was accepted to the University of Florida where he began his first semester in fall 2005. He majored in food science and human nutrition in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and stayed one more semester before dropping out in 2006.
He racked up two traffic tickets that same year – one in Alachua County and the other in Volusia County.
This is where Suliman’s story gets hazy.
His LinkedIn account said he attended Santa Fe College from 2011 to 2014 and obtained an associate of arts degree in psychology. The college said he attended from 2009 to 2014 and never earned any degree, spokesman Jay Anderson said.
The conflicting information and gaps in history make it impossible for anyone to know Suliman’s life story with precision. Family members won’t talk to reporters.
Mental health troubles
In the federal criminal complaint, Suliman is described as diagnosed with bipolar disorder in mid-2006. He told the FBI that not taking his medication later led him to become radicalized. This is because when he doesn’t take his medication correctly, his beliefs altered from those of a moderate Muslim to a Salafi Muslim, he said.
The idea that psychiatric disorders influence extremism is hotly contested. Mental health problems can increase vulnerability to extremism, according to research by Paul Gill, a professor of security and crime science at the University College London, and others.
“For a few, it is a precursor to criminal behavior,” Gill said. “For others, it could lead to social isolation, which in turn could lead to a dependency on the online space or finding a new extreme network of people.”
It may not have taken Suliman long to become radicalized after his bipolar diagnosis. He may have first tried to join a terrorist organization known as Al-Shabaab by going to Somalia in the summer of 2006, FBI Special Agent R. David Collins said at a hearing in February 2021.
The current criminal complaint said Suliman told investigators he began seeking ways to join terrorist groups overseas in early 2009. In May of that year, audio files of terrorist propaganda began to appear in a Gmail account. There were 36 audio files dated between May 2009 to Oct. 2012.
In July 2009, Suliman was detained after traveling to Somalia to try to join al-Shabaab a second time.
This is an unusual case because most people who traveled to join al-Shabaab from the United States were Somali Americans, mainly from the Minnesota area, said Bennett Clifford, senior research fellow in the program on extremism at George Washington University.
“At that time, there was an unprecedented wave of Americans who attempted to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabaab,” Clifford said.
In March 2011, the Syrian War began. While registered for classes at Santa Fe College, Suliman also listed work in the capital of Sudan on his LinkedIn profile. It showed that he was a translator for the Sudanese Student Union in Khartoum for four months that year. He was later interviewed by the FBI at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul.
After that comes another gap in history. The audio propaganda ended in late 2012. In April 2013, Suliman, then 26, married a 17-year-old. The next month, he registered to vote with no party affiliation. On LinkedIn, he indicated he worked from August 2013 through January 2014 as an assistant manager at a hotel in Khartoum.
Suliman researched how to get to Syria on an ISIS site in mid-2014, according to court records. Around this time, ISIS was on the radar, said Clifford. It was engaged in several key raids and other activities in Syria — showing results on the battlefield and producing effective propaganda.
“I want to say April, May 2014, there were a lot of folks who had a lot of difficulty determining which group they should join, and I think you see that in the Suliman complaint,” he said. “But eventually he decides on ISIS because of some of the actions that took place in the spring and summer of 2014.”
This may have been when ISIS declared it had re-established the caliphate. This was significant in how it was portraying itself for recruitment purposes.
“The fact that he’s first in 2009 traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabaab and then later tries to travel to Syria to join ISIS, puts him in the middle in sort of as an active participant of both of these waves of foreign fighter travel from the United States,” he said.
In June 2014, Suliman made a flight reservation to Egypt via Istanbul, according to the criminal complaint. He boarded a flight in Orlando and would not return home to America for over six years.
When he arrived in Istanbul, he purchased a ticket to Gaziantep, Turkey. According to Clifford, most people are in contact or attempt to get in touch with ISIS recruiters once they get to Gaziantep.
“ISIS actually had point people for this,” he said. “They would reach out to people, and they would say, ‘hey, if you made it this far, get in contact with this brother over Twitter or through some other messaging application, and they’ll ferry you across the border.’”
In 2014, this was possible because ISIS was in control of towns on the other side of the border. Suliman was arrested in the evening in Kilis, Turkey, when he tried to illegally enter Syria. The pathway he took was common at the time, said Clifford.
Suliman was interrogated multiple times and then deported to Sudan as he said that’s where his father was located. Around the same time, he created a Facebook account using an email address from the University of Florida. The profile picture featured the ISIS black flag.
Two years later, Turkey notified the U.S. government of Suliman’s arrest on the Syrian border. In 2018, Collins, the FBI agent, interviewed Suliman with his mother in Sudan. Suliman told Collins he had traveled to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar since his expulsion from Turkey.
Suliman was arrested on a warrant in India where he said he was there for school for over a year. On the way back to the United States, Collins asked Suliman if he needed any medication for his bipolar disorder and whether he was still taking it.
Suliman declined, saying he was self-medicating as he was concerned about the long-term effects of the medication, Collins said.
In his most recent letter to the trial judge, Suliman complained that his court case was taking too long and he should be allowed to go free.
The judge denied his request.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected].