US Citizen vs. ISIS: An Online Sleuth Lands in Jail. Toby Lopez was a supremely ordinary guy. He sold Toyotas and lived with his mother in a tidy rancher here with a cherry tree out front. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/us/an-amateur-vs-isis-a-car-salesman-investigates-and-ends-up-in-prison.html?_r=0
After a high school friend was killed in Afghanistan, Mr. Lopez heard on CNN that the Islamic State was active on Twitter, and he went online to see what he could find. “I was intrigued,” said Mr. Lopez, 42. “What could they possibly be saying on Twitter?”
What followed was a radical break from his humdrum life. He was pulled into the murky world of Internet jihadists, sparring with them from his office at the car dealership and late into the night at home. Before long, he was talking for hours on Skype with a man who claimed — falsely, as it would turn out — to be a top ISIS military commander, trying to negotiate the release of hostages. Mr. Lopez contacted the F.B.I. and began a testy relationship with counterterrorism agents who came to believe he might pose a danger. In the end, he landed in federal prison, where he was held for nearly 14 months without trial.
The story of one man’s deepening obsession with a terrorist group is a reminder
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An Amateur vs. ISIS: A Car Salesman Investigates and Ends Up in P… http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/us/an-amateur-vs-isis-a-car-sal…
of how the Internet provides easy portals to distant, sometimes dangerous worlds. It shows the complications for law enforcement agents who confront an overeager amateur encroaching on their turf.
But it also underscores how lost a person can feel inside the criminal justice system. Deprived of his freedom, his sanity in question, Mr. Lopez found himself without a legal advocate he trusted or access to evidence he believed could free him.
The hundreds of emails, text messages and recorded Skype calls that Mr. Lopez saved show him growing more and more frantic when F.B.I. agents did not see things his way. Believing American hostages’ lives were at stake, he sent an agent 80 increasingly overheated messages in 10 days. In one, he declared, “Just remember whatever ends up happening to you … You deserved it,” and added an expletive. On Feb. 11, 2015, a dozen police and F.B.I. cars surrounded the house with the cherry tree, arrested Mr. Lopez and charged him with transmitting a threat.
He was shuttled among federal facilities in Pennsylvania, New York, Oklahoma and North Carolina. Without access to his records, prison psychologists assumed his tales of talking to Islamic State members were fiction, symptoms of a mental illness that made him incompetent to stand trial. Prosecutors sought a hearing to decide whether he should be forcibly medicated.
The defense finally obtained a third mental health evaluation — the first one by a psychologist who had actually reviewed Mr. Lopez’s voluminous files. It found him competent, and he was released on bail late last month.
“Without having the documents,” Kirk Heilbrun, a Drexel University psychologist, wrote in his March 2 evaluation, “I would have concluded that his account of this entire series of events sounded both grandiose and delusional. Having reviewed these documents, however, I would not describe his account as delusional.”
On Friday, the United States attorney’s office in Delaware said it had taken the “exceedingly rare” step of dropping the charges. “We have not hesitated to do so when the facts and law support such a decision,” a statement said. In an interview last week, Mr. Lopez’s voice broke as he described his prison ordeal. “Nobody deserves to get dragged through what I got dragged through, along with my family,” he said. “It’s sad that when someone does something with righteous intentions and gets treated by the government this way.”
Finding Internet Adversaries
By his own admission, Mr. Lopez knew almost nothing about the Islamic State before 2014. Athletic and fun-loving, he had managed an Italian restaurant for years before becoming a car salesman. He became addicted to painkillers for a while, but he kicked the habit and has been off drugs for several years, he said. “Toby is your regular guy,” said Mary Roloff, who is married to Mr. Lopez’s half brother, Edward.
At first, Mr. Lopez said, he started insulting people who praised the Islamic State on Twitter. Then he decided to learn more about his social media adversaries. He picked up a few Islamic terms online and began to engage the terrorist group’s supporters, even quoting the Quran to counter them. He found the anonymity of the Internet intoxicating. As he put it, nobody knew he was “little Toby, the car salesman from Delaware.”
On Google, Mr. Lopez discovered that one man who had engaged him on Twitter, calling himself @shishaniomar, seemed to be Omar al-Shishani, or Omar the Chechen, the nom de guerre of the military commander of the Islamic State. Soon the two were regularly chatting on Skype. By early November 2014, he had left his job, agreeing with his boss that his online life had become a distraction.
The man who claimed to be the Islamic State commander regaled him with tales of battle, grumbled about condescending Arab bosses and called Mr. Lopez “brother.” The man confided that he did not believe that Islam condoned the taking of women and children as slaves. Soon he asked Mr. Lopez to raise ransom to free hundreds of members of the Yazidi religious minority held hostage by the Islamic State.
When relatives gathered for Thanksgiving in 2014 at the Roloffs’ home near Baltimore, Mr. Lopez showed them jihadist videos and text message exchanges with Islamic State fans.
“We love ‘CSI,’” Ms. Roloff said. “We thought, ‘This is really cool.’ But some of what he shared with us — like videos of kids hanging from a tree — started to scare me. It was beyond our comprehension.”
Mr. Lopez contacted the F.B.I., and two agents visited his home and interviewed him, he said. Through Allan Ripp, a New York public relations specialist he found online, Mr. Lopez also contacted The New York Times. Two reporters visited him in January 2015 and spent several hours reviewing his emails, texts and audio recordings.
But after checking with experts, the reporters concluded that Mr. Lopez was talking not to the real, red-bearded Mr. Shishani, but to an impostor. The actual commander did not speak fluent English, and the language overheard in the background of Skype calls was not Chechen, as the impostor claimed, but Kurdish. His multiple Twitter accounts had an antic tone; he once posted a “Simpsons” cartoon about the Islamic State.
“It’s definitely a fake,” Joanna Paraszczuk, a British journalist and researcher who tracks the Chechens fighting in Syria, said by email. She said the same man had duped an Australian radio station into interviewing him but later admitted that he was not the ISIS commander, but a Kurdish immigrant to Scandinavia.
The man’s motive appeared to be money: He asked Mr. Lopez to bring the ransom to Sweden, supposedly to be forwarded to Syria.
When the Times reporters told Mr. Lopez they did not believe he was dealing with the real Islamic State commander, he grew angry. He was hearing similar skepticism from the F.B.I., according to email exchanges with Jeffrey A. Reising, a senior counterterrorism agent based in Wilmington, Del.
From the emails, it appears that Mr. Reising was exploring Mr. Lopez’s contacts even as he tried to persuade him to disengage from the online jihadist world. But Mr. Lopez connected with a second Twitter user claiming to be an Islamic State figure who could get American hostages released, and Mr. Lopez tried to contact several hostages’ families. At least one of them complained to the F.B.I.
Convinced that he could save lives, Mr. Lopez brushed off Mr. Reising’s warnings. He wrote dozens of emails to the F.B.I., some proposing that he talk to the bureau’s director or even to President Obama. He focused on the case of Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old American aid worker being held by the Islamic State. His online contacts had suggested that she might be freed.
Despite his doubts about Mr. Lopez’s exploits, Mr. Reising appeared to believe he might have stumbled across useful information. “Can you provide all contact information for the person on that chat?” he wrote to Mr. Lopez on Feb. 4, 2015, referring to an exchange with a purported Islamic State representative.
Near midnight, Mr. Lopez excitedly emailed the F.B.I. agent. “I want to bring her home alive,” he wrote. “I know I can do it and I will look the PRESIDENT in his eyes and tell him exactly that … Anything else your fooling yourself and your in denial!! Good night!”
The weary F.B.I. agent replied: “Toby….Seriously. Get some sleep.”
When Ms. Mueller was reported killed two days later in an airstrike, Mr. Lopez was furious and blamed the F.B.I. for not cooperating with him. His messages to the bureau grew more defiant.
“Any attempt to arrest me will be treated as a hostile act,” he wrote to Mr. Reising. By then, agents had been informed by the Delaware State Police that Mr. Lopez’s mother, Joyce Lopez, had told them that her son had a shotgun and was in a “poor mental state.” Mrs. Lopez, 78, said recently that she had simply asked whether the gun had to be registered.
By Feb. 11, the F.B.I. had had enough. Mrs. Lopez arrived home to find her house surrounded. “Cars all over the place,” she recalled. “Toby was standing there with his hands up. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’”
The authorities had interpreted Mr. Lopez’s heated emails as a “threat to injure” Mr. Reising, a crime with a sentence of up to five years. Mr. Lopez said later that he had threatened only to expose what he considered government bungling to the news media. He was locked up, and federal prosecutors soon sought a court order for a mental health assessment.
‘Your Brother Is Very Sick’
At an initial court hearing in Wilmington, family members urged Mr. Lopez’s public defender, Daniel I. Siegel, to collect the records of his online contacts, which they thought showed his intentions were good. By their account, Mr. Siegel ignored their pleas. “He just said, ‘Your brother is very sick and he needs help,’” Ms. Roloff recalled.
Mr. Lopez said Mr. Siegel never came to see him in the year that followed, as he cycled through the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan (where he surprised a few terrorism defendants with Arabic phrases); a medical prison in Butner, N.C., (where he played on the softball team); and three other facilities.
The first two psychological evaluations found that Mr. Lopez was suffering from “delusional disorder, grandiose type.” To Mr. Lopez’s distress, Mr. Siegel did not contest the findings.
A year into Mr. Lopez’s imprisonment, after complaints from his family and reporters’ inquiries, Edson A. Bostic, the chief federal public defender in Delaware, took over the case. He quickly obtained from the family the files documenting Mr. Lopez’s online history and arranged for the third psychological assessment.
Dr. Heilbrun, the Drexel psychologist, declared in his report that if Mr. Lopez had not been talking with the real Mr. Shishani (who was killed last month), then someone posing as the Islamic State commander had pulled off “a clever, detailed, and well-constructed hoax.”
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Bostic called the case “a complex matter” and praised Mr. Siegel’s record of representing indigent clients. But he said the complaints from Mr. Lopez and his family would be investigated. Mr. Siegel did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Now that the charges have been dropped, Mr. Lopez, who missed two family weddings while in prison, is reconnecting with friends and relatives.
“All over you see those billboards that say, ‘See Something; Say Something,’” said Tana Stevens, Mr. Lopez’s sister. “He tried to do that. And they basically kidnapped him for 14 months.”
Mr. Lopez said he had consulted lawyers and was considering a lawsuit against the government officials responsible for his incarceration. “If I hadn’t gotten another evaluation, I might still be sitting down at Butner, with a needle in my arm,” he said. “This was the United States of America, flexing its muscles on me.”