A self-proclaimed supporter of the Islamic State living in Suffolk told FBI agents last month after his arrest they were lucky they picked him up outside his home, according to a federal prosecutor.
Lionel Nelson Williams, who had a loaded AK-47 and 9 mm handgun inside the house, said he would have been happy to shoot it out with the agents.
But what about his elderly grandmother, with whom he lived?
“She knows when to duck,” Williams said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph DePadilla revealed more of the government’s case Wednesday during a detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. DePadilla said Williams confessed to the FBI after his Dec. 21 arrest that he supported the Islamic State terror group and that he told an undercover federal agent during a nine-month investigation he wanted to martyr himself in Hampton Roads
“It’s the only way,” Williams told the undercover agent, according to DePadilla.
The prosecutor did not say where Williams planned to attack but stressed that he said it would be local. DePadilla took that to mean Suffolk or the surrounding area.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Keith Kimball argued that the FBI entrapped his client. He said the First Amendment allows Williams to express support for the Islamic State, and he questioned whether his client started talking about martyrdom only because the FBI led him that way.
“Entrapment is flowing throughout this case,” Kimball said.
In light of the defendant’s interest in martyring himself, Magistrate Judge Lawrence Leonard ordered Williams – also known as Harun Ash-Shababi – to stay incarcerated pending his trial.
Williams, 26, was arrested last month and indicted Wednesday on one charge of attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years.
According to court documents, a former associate of Williams contacted the FBI in March to report that Williams had been posting statements on Facebook that indicated his support for the Islamic State. The associate said Williams had recently acquired an AK-47 rifle.
The report prompted the FBI to check Williams’ publicly viewable Facebook page. The agency then secretly reached out to him in April, posing online as someone connected to the Islamic State.
Following several online conversations and at least one in-person meeting, Williams contacted a man he believed was an Islamic State financier. He provided that person, who was actually with the FBI, account information for a $200 prepaid cash card.
Williams later provided the agent another $50, court documents said.
Before accepting the money, the undercover FBI agent went so far as tell Williams the money was “going to kill people.”
In November, Williams told the FBI he feared he was not “pure” enough to carry out an attack in the United States, court documents said. In December, however, he said he felt he was ready to “go forth.”
DePadilla said Williams told the FBI he was working to acquire “tools.” And, he said, Williams said he would soon see his fiancée – a Muslim woman from Brazil he’d met online – in heaven.
Two days later, the FBI moved in – securing a search warrant for Williams’ home and arresting him outside.
Kimball downplayed Williams connection to the Islamic State, arguing that $250 was not a lot of money.
“In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know how much support that would have provided,” he said.
Kimball also argued the martyrdom statements were not important.
“It was simply talk. Bravado, if you will,” he said, asking the court to release his client to the custody of his grandmother or uncle.
He noted that Williams’ uncle, who lived on the same property as Williams, works at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and has a security clearance.
Leonard said he could not release Williams. He argued Williams didn’t need a gun to carry out an attack on U.S. soil, noting recent terrorist incidents in France and Germany that involved trucks. The risk, he said, was too great.
“This is more than speech,” the judge said.
Read more about the conversations between Williams-Ash-Shababi and the FBI in the affidavit here.