This undated photo image provided by the Williamson County Jail shows Rahatul Khan. (AP Photo/Williamson County Jail)
AUSTIN, Texas — The second of two 23-year-old men charged in Austin with aiding overseas terrorists has admitted that he connected an undercover agent with co-conspirators recruiting jihadi fighters to Somalia.
Rahatul Ashikim Khan, a University of Texas student, pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempting to provide material support and resources to terrorists. His admission came less than a week after Michael Todd Wolfe, a Houston native, pleaded guilty to the same rare federal offense, confirming he had plans to travel to Syria to engage in jihad.
Both face up to 15 years in prison, though no sentencing dates have been set.
Law enforcement officials and retired military officers on Wednesday hailed the investigations that they said brought the men to swift justice, citing concerns over homegrown terrorism and a possible rise in Westerners joining an al-Qaida offshoot now gaining force in Iraq and Syria. But 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.
Khan, a government major whose arrest in mid-June shocked neighbors in his Round Rock neighborhood, had waived a bail hearing Monday. Authorities say he had been using a chat room through the website "AuthenticTauheed" as a platform to spot and assess potential recruits to wage jihad overseas.
His plea agreement has been sealed. But in a record read in court Wednesday, prosecutors said they had enough witness testimony, documents and physical evidence to prove Khan had met an undercover agent he believed to be a "worthy candidate for violent jihad in Somalia" and introduced that FBI investigator to two co-conspirators, who were to coordinate the logistics of travel to Africa.
Khan used communication methods designed to avoid detection by authorities and took precautions to conceal his illegal activities, according to the record.
A separate indictment out of a Miami federal court obtained by the Austin American-Statesman seems to share ties to the complaint against Khan and alleges his possible co-conspirators had been supporting three groups, designated by the United States as terrorist groups, that have operated in Iraq, Syria and Somalia.
Investigators allege the men would seek out jihad supporters online and arranged travel plans and passports for them to join the terrorist organizations. From 2011 to 2012, they wired thousands of dollars that they believed would go to jihad, including weapons and training, according to the records filed in May.
Law enforcement officials have declined comment on Austin links to the Miami case, which remains pending, and they wouldn't speak on the connection between the cases of Khan and Wolfe, saying only that they are related.
But, "Rahatul Khan's admissions during (Wednesday) morning's guilty plea should serve as a sobering reminder that we need to remain vigilant in our efforts to detect and root out terrorism, even in our own backyard," U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman said in a statement. "National security is, and will remain, the first priority of this office and our law enforcement partners."
National security experts and retired military officials said the cases could be unique as they appear to have ties to a more organized criminal group. But they warned against a sense of paranoia that has emerged amid recent unrest in Iraq and Syria.
Volunteer fighters and jihad supporters, like Wolfe and Khan, tend to become radicalized and use the Internet to communicate with like-minded individuals. Some fly overseas to gain further exposure, they said.
"But there is no unified national jihadi network," said Bob Scales, a retired Army major general and a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. "They all tend to be amateurs and bit players. That is not to say that it won't evolve. But at present time, it is still an individual franchise rather than a global network."
Adm. Bobby Inman, the former director of the National Security Agency, said the cases show that it is now easier for jihad supporters to find each other online. "There is not a single isolated area of the country where we can just focus on, and it's getting harder to separate those who are connected to foreign terrorist activities to those who are connected to domestic terrorists," he said.
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