Iraq-born Hawazen Sameer Mothafar immigrated to the United States, probably during a refugee resettlement spike in 2009, and settled in the Portland, Ore., suburb of Troutdale. He became a lawful permanent resident on October 28, 2010, and filed an application for naturalized citizenship in May 2016, passing his naturalization exam in February 2018, according to a later civil lawsuit against the U.S. government.
Mothafar was awaiting final citizenship adjudication in November 2020 when federal prosecutors indicted and arrested him on terrorism charges related to at least five years of managing digital incitement propaganda publishing operations, extremist chat rooms, and email accounts for senior leaders of the ISIS terrorist organization. An FBI investigation, and apparently not national security vetting by USCIS on Mothafar's citizenship application, is what uncovered his support for ISIS. That support included his production of the pro-ISIS media site Al Dura'a al Sunni ("The Sunni Shield", that published 32 issues of the ISIS newspaper Al-Anfal that included articles with titles such as "Effective Stabbing Techniques" and "How Does a Detonator Work".
In their indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that FBI investigators traced Mothafar’s support to as early as 2014 and “no later than February 2015”, which would indicate that USCIS adjudicators were unaware of nearly three years of his illicit activity in support of ISIS, which included setting up Facebook pages for known foreign terrorist leaders. For the subsequent years until his arrest, when Mothafar allegedly edited and produced Al Anfal, he was receiving orders directly from the ISIS central media office, known as Diwan, the indictment states. The indictment accuses him of conducting research for ISIS on how to fly a drone carrying an object for another arrested official, and regularly encouraged terror attacks. Two government charges of conspiracy to materially support terrorism remained unadjudicated as of December 2022 as the Department of Justice investigation continued overseas.
Mothafar's illicit activity apparently came some years after he applied for refugee status and likely entered the United States in about 2009 and received Legal Permanent Residence in 2010. But although immigration-related security vetting for those benefits occurred prior to his ISIS activities, the vetting process for his May 2016 citizenship application apparently missed his intense, prominent social media activity for three years and about seven months after he began engaging in it, until he came to FBI attention in November 2019. Court filings indicate that the terrorism lead was generated during a November 25, 2019, interview in Iraq with captured ISIS propaganda operations leader Yasir al Anzi, a government motion to depose Al Anzi for Mothafar's trial indicates.
In that Iraqi prison interview, Al Anzi disclosed details about an "American volunteer" who, in 2014, was among “strong [ISIS] supporters” in the United States, who was in a wheelchair and went by the name Abu Ubayda al-Rifai, a name used by the wheelchair-bound Mothafar.
“The FBI has confirmed that Abu Ubayda al-Rifai is the defendant,” the government said in its motion to depose the Iraqi prisoner.
It is reasonable to judge, given the extent to which Mothafar was radicalized by 2014 and operating inside the U.S. that at least the earlier vetting for refugee status and a Legal Permanent Residency in 2009 or 2010 would have found little.
But he was well involved by the time he filed a citizenship application in 2016 and vetting cleared him enough to take his citizenship exam in 2018. Mothafar was thus able to remain free to continue operating ISIS’s digital communications and email accounts until his November 2020 FBI arrest. It was the FBI investigation that ultimately held up the Mothafar application’s adjudication. (The FBI is able to request that USCIS delay adjudications on applicants who are investigative targets, under a policy known as the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program.)
This timing indicates that security vetting for the citizenship application, which is supposed to be concluded within six months, failed by not delving into Mothafar's social media activity or deeply interviewing him or associates.
Oregon’s FBI Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon was quoted as saying that Mothafar’s alleged online propaganda aimed to incite lone actor operators in the United States and was especially dangerous.
“When it comes to cases like this one,” Cannon stated, “a computer and keyboard can be powerful weapons against the enemies of the Islamic State.”
For example, a month after filing for citizenship, Mothafar is alleged to have shared 70 images of explosives and western cities, telling Sunni Shield members, “The images of destroyed infidel cities will be useful,” the indictment said. He continued inciting to violence online throughout 2019 and well into 2020, and continued supporting ISIS officials overseas until the day of his arrest. These are activities that authorities undoubtedly would have prevented with an arrest had they known of them.
Prosecution was pending as of January 2023.