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By Dylan Baddour October 3, 2014

Unsupported: Greg Abbott says he helped prosecute terrorist ISIS member

Republican Greg Abbott let fly a statement of seeming international significance in the Sept. 19, 2014, gubernatorial debate in the Rio Grande Valley. Abbott, the state attorney general, defended his decision not to ease public knowledge of where explosive fuels are stored before saying: "We’ve seen the rise of terrorism. I’ve been involved in prosecuting a terrorist member of ISIS."

Democrat Wendy Davis didn’t challenge his prosecutorial claim. But we wondered.

The Islamic State group, believed to have tens of thousands of fighters, wants to see the Middle East cleaned of Western influence and put under ultra-conservative religious law. Since June 2014, it’s beheaded hostages (including journalists) on camera, conducted mass executions, captured American weapons caches, demolished ancient shrines and laid deadly siege to ethnic communities.

Our look into Abbott’s actions led us through his state office to a federal indictment, news stories and an interview of the wife of the Austin-area suspect at issue.

Ultimately, Abbott’s statement struck us as lacking in factual footing -- including whether the cited individual can reasonably be judged a terrorist.

In July 2013, PolitiFact identified no ironclad agreed-upon definition of terrorism, which has been defined differently across think tanks and federal agencies.

That story noted Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University expert, wrote in 2006 that terrorism is "the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change." His logic was that "all terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim or objects of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider ‘target audience’ that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, an entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general."

Abbott’s backup information

By email, Abbott’s state spokesman, Jerry Strickland, told us Abbott was referring to 23-year-old Michael Todd Wolfe of Round Rock, who was arrested at a Houston airport on June 17, 2014, as he boarded a flight to Toronto, Canada. Ten days later, Wolfe pleaded guilty to charges he’d concealed a plot to provide resources to terrorists. According to a June 27, 2014, FBI press release, Wolfe had admitted in court "he planned to travel to the Middle East to provide his services to a foreign terrorist organization, namely, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/Syria (ISIS)." As of early October 2014, he was imprisoned and awaiting sentencing.

According to a June 18, 2014, FBI press release, Wolfe’s arrest resulted from a Central Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation conducted by the FBI in cooperation with 11 other public entities including the Office of the Texas Attorney General and extending to local police agencies and even the state department that regulates liquor sales. According to the release, the FBI investigated "together with the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, United States Army Intelligence, Austin Police Department, Round Rock Police Department, Killeen Police Department, University of Texas Police Department, Travis County Sheriff’s Office, Texas Department of Public Safety, Office of the Texas Attorney General and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission."

Mindful the attorney general’s office doesn’t typically focus on criminal prosecutions, we asked Strickland to specify how Abbott and his office pitched in, fielding no reply to repeated inquiries.

We also asked how Abbott concluded Wolfe was an Islamic State terrorist. By email, Strickland pointed out mentions of "jihad" and "battle" in the criminal complaint against Wolfe, which was signed by an FBI agent.

Federal complaint

According to the indictment, Wolfe violated a law (Title 18, United States Code §2339A) written in the PATRIOT Act of 2001. The law states anyone who "conceals or disguises the nature, location, source, or ownership" of "material support or resources" that are intended to prepare for or carry out acts of murder, kidnapping or maiming can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Also on file in U.S. District Court in Austin: A 12-page sworn complaint against Wolfe signed by Blake Crow, an FBI agent who wrote that he was relying on testimony from agents whose identities couldn't be revealed. In the complaint, Crow describes multiple conversations with Wolfe touched off by Wolfe’s wife, Jordan Furr of Austin, when she spoke to an undercover agent about Wolfe’s desire to fight with "his brothers" in Syria, saying Wolfe "just wants to hop into Syria. He’s ready to die for his deen. He’s ready to die for someone, for something," the complaint said. Deen is an Arabic word meaning religion.

Here’s our summary of key portions of the complaint:

A different agent met Wolfe almost three months later, on October 26, 2013, and they discussed "violent jihad overseas." Five days later, the agent offered to help Wolfe organize a trip to the Middle East.

Subsequently, agents met with Wolfe or his wife at least 15 times. On at least six occasions, between April and June 2014, agents phoned Wolfe to develop a travel plan. In one phone call the complaint describes, Wolfe expressed reluctance to go to Syria.

When an agent called Wolfe on May 19, 2014, "Wolfe utilized coded language as he expressed concerns about traveling to join Jabhat al-Nusra based on information he’d learned about the group’s recent activities. Wolfe indicated he was more in line with another group." In a footnote, Crow, said he "believes the other group referred to by Wolfe is the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS)."

The agent called again on May 23, 2014, and told Wolfe that a man who would join them, another agent introduced to Wolfe as an experienced jihadist, "already had the respect of the brothers because he had referrals and recommendations." Wolfe, using coded language, "explained that, given the demographics of their group, it would make sense to go to the other ‘performance." In a footnote, Crow said he "believes that Wolfe’s discussion of the other "performance" was a reference to the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS)."

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At the end of the phone call, "Wolfe indicated he had struggled with whether to stay or go, and stated, ‘...but now...I’m back to going, so I’m kinda like scrambling...’ with respect to financial issues."

There were two more conversations between Wolfe and the agent in which Wolfe agreed to meet the agent in Denmark before they ventured together to Turkey. Crow said he "believes that Wolfe intended to ultimately intended to travel to Syria through Turkey, and engage in violent jihad."

Another view

Furr, in her first interview on this matter, gave a conflicting interpretation of the described events.

The man who turned out to be an FBI agent, she said, encouraged her husband to go to Syria, via Turkey. Furr said Wolfe wouldn’t have agreed to do so without the agent’s pushing.

Wolfe also didn’t plan to enter combat, she said, and didn’t agree to join the Islamic State group.

Asked if Wolfe was a member of the Islamic State group, Furr said, "No, no, laughingly no. He doesn’t know anybody over there."

But Wolfe pleaded guilty to the charges he planned to join the group, Furr said, because the FBI had insinuated the government would prosecute his friends and family if he didn’t.

Membership in the Islamic State

Weeks after Wolfe’s arrest, the Austin American-Statesman spoke with experts about homegrown terrorists. National "security experts cautioned against hyping up a terrorist threat in the United States, saying most defendants who have faced similar charges nationwide have been unorganized amateurs with little to contribute to armed conflicts abroad," the July 2, 2014, news story said.

It’s not necessarily easy to tell if someone is a member of the Islamic State group, experts agreed. 

By phone, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called the Islamic State group "an open network."

"In part whether you’re a member ...depends on whether you call yourself a member," he said. However, he said, the Islamic State group "has a central command" based in Syria and Iraq that directs the group.

"It’s not clear if someone is arrested as an" Islamic State group "member in Texas if they were acting on orders of central command or if central command is even aware of them," he said.

By email, Henri Barkey, professor of International Relations and a Near East expert at Lehigh University, said he didn’t know at what point an individual could be considered a "member of ISIS." Barkley suggested we ask the person in question.

We spoke briefly by phone with Wolfe’s court-appointed attorney, Horatio Aldredge, who declined to talk about Wolfe.

Our ruling

Abbott said he helped prosecute "a terrorist member of ISIS."

Given Abbott’s silence on what exactly he or state lawyers did in connection with this case, we have no evidence to back up his declaration aside from a press release crediting a range of agencies including the attorney general and extending to the Killeen Police Department and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. That release doesn’t say any of the agencies prosecuted Wolfe.

Abbott’s statement also relied on a broad definition of "terrorist" and "ISIS member." The federal complaint suggests that Wolfe may have sought to be those things but does not offer evidence that he had become either a terrorist or ISIS member.

We rate the claim False.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

News story, Two men charged in Austin with providing support to terrorists, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 25, 2014

News story, ISIS can muster 20,000 to 31,000 fighters, triple previous estimates: CIA, New York Daily News, Sept. 12, 2014

Video, The Islamic State (Full Length), VICE News, Aug. 15, 2014

News story, Militant Group Says It Killed American Journalist in Syria, Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times, Aug. 19, 2014

News story, Massacre Claim Shakes Iraq, Rob Norland and Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, June 15, 2014

News story, Arms Windfall for Insurgents as Iraq City Falls, The New York Times, June 10, 2014

News story, ISIS Destroys Mosques and Shrines in Iraq: Pictures, Lucy Westcott, Newsweek, July 8, 2014

News story, For Refugees on Mountain, ‘No Water, Nothing’, The New York Times, Aug. 9, 2014

PolitiFact story, What’s the definition of ‘terrorism’?,Louis Jacobson, PolitiFact, July 9, 2013

Telephone interview and emails, Jerry Strickland, press secretary, Office of the Attorney General, Austin, Sept. 24 and 29, 2014

Telephone interview, Robert Pitman, United States Attorney, Department of Justice, Sept. 24, 2014

Telephone interview, Horatio Aldredge, assistant federal public defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Sept. 24, 2014

Criminal records search, Williamson County civil and criminal courts, Sept. 24, 2014

Document, criminal complaint for Michael Todd Wolfe, Blake Crow, FBI, Sept. 23, 2014

Document, Country Reports on Terrorism 2013 Executive Summary, U.S. Department of State, April 2014

Website, Foreign Terrorist Organizations, Bureau of Counterterrorism, United States Department of State, Sept. 25, 2014

Video, Texas Gubernatorial Debate, Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, CSPAN, Sept. 23, 2014

Press release, Central Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force Arrests Two for Allegedly Providing Material Support to Terrorists, San Antonio Division, FBI, Sept. 24, 2014

Press release, Austinite Pleads Guilty to Attempting to Provide Material Support to Terrorists, San Antonio Division, FBI, Sept. 25, 2014

News story, UT Student Pleads Guilty to Terrorism Charges, Jazmine Ulloa, Austin American-Statesman, published July 2, 2014, Sept. 25, 2014

Telephone interviews, Michelle Lee, media coordinator, FBI, San Antonio, Sept. 26 and Oct. 2, 2014

Telephone interview, Denise Ballew, spokeswoman, FBI National Press Office, Washington, D.C., Sept. 26, 2014

Telephone interview, Jennifer Williams, courtroom deputy, court of U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Lane, Sept. 29, 2014

Interview, Jordan Furr, Austin, Sept. 30 2014

Document, Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001,107th Congress of the United States of America, (accessed Sept. 30, 2014)

Document, Title 18, United States Code §2339A, United States Department of Justice (accessed Sept. 30, 2014)

Telephone interview, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Sept. 29, 2014

Emails, Henri Barkey, professor of international relations and Near East expert, Lehigh University, Sept. 24, 2014

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Unsupported: Greg Abbott says he helped prosecute terrorist ISIS member

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