Free Syrian Army: How to Not Help

An OC refugee thought he had found a way to end his country's civil war. Then the FBI found his laptop computer

To accomplish this, he realized, he needed more than just Andrea's laptop. He needed a PC workstation. Murad reached out to a local Syrian-American businessman who was active in providing humanitarian aid to refugees and whom Murad knew was sympathetic to the FSA. Murad says the businessman (who did not respond to an interview request) put him in touch with a subordinate, who listened to Murad's proposal and quickly responded that no further study was necessary. "Give me the study, and I will forward it to the FSA," Murad says the man told him. "You will either be talking to them on the Internet or phone, or you will be going there."

Eager to accept that offer, Murad responded he just needed to make a few final tweaks to his study and run a few last simulations. "I was in the process of doing that," he says. "And then I got the police called on me."

*    *    *

Kyle Monk
Murad: BFF of the FSA?
Kyle Monk
Murad: BFF of the FSA?

Early this spring, just a few minutes past noon on a chilly Tuesday, Murad waits patiently outside the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney, his stocky frame wrapped tight in a black cardigan sweater. His large bald head droops shyly forward over his shoulders. Both of his hands are stuffed into his pockets. He carries himself with the gait of someone who is ashamed or embarrassed of something, but as soon as he opens his mouth, the words pour forth, as if unburdening themselves of persistent silence.

Inside the restaurant, over a lunch of barbecue chicken wings, a U.S. men's soccer international friendly blaring from a large-screen television, Murad shares his story. At times, while talking about how his marriage to Andrea fell apart, he begins to cry. "I'm so unstable," he says. "I am guilty of a series of mistakes, but I loved her and still love her."

The morning the police showed up at Andrea's house, he had woken up in her arms. It was a Sunday morning in mid-December 2012. They'd been arguing the night before; a few days earlier, Murad had gotten into a shouting match with his mother-in-law. It all started, he explains, when she confronted him about how much time he was spending at the house.

"She caught me numerous times leaving her daughter's room in the morning," Murad recalls. "I told her we were married, and she exploded." When Andrea's mother threatened to have him deported from the U.S. for committing marriage fraud, Murad bristled. "I don't care about your fucking country," he said. "You are going to regret that," she responded. "You are going to pay for what you said."

After that confrontation, unbeknownst to Murad, his mother-in-law had presented Andrea with an ultimatum: get a divorce, or move out of the house with your husband. Andrea chose the first option, and when the police arrived to escort him out of the house as an intruder, she stayed inside and filled out paperwork for a restraining order, which a judge later extended and will remain in place for several more months. (Andrea refused to comment for this story.)

Murad spent that first night on a park bench; then he went to the businessman who had promised to help him to send his armor-piercing missile study to the Syrian rebels. The man secured Murad a job working in a Santa Ana warehouse where food, blankets and medicine for Syrian civil-war refugees were being prepped for shipping overseas. Murad spent the next month volunteering there, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week; he even slept there on a small cot.

Everything was going great, Murad says, until the man who ran the warehouse told him the FBI was looking for him. He gave Murad a telephone number to call. The following morning, Murad met two agents at a Jack In the Box on Ball Road in Anaheim, near the city's Little Arabia district. They didn't say how the feds had learned of his plans and didn't disclose why they wanted to talk to him. Instead, they began asking him questions about his mother-in-law. The questions quickly revealed they'd seen his computer simulations. "They asked me if I was trying to access explosives," Murad says. "They were concerned about my activities with the FSA and who I was trying to contact online."

The meeting lasted roughly two hours, and Murad told them everything—how he got the idea to design a rocket-propelled missile that could destroy the T80 tank, how he had never tried to obtain any actual explosives or break any laws or arms embargo, but how he fervently hoped to get his plans in the hands of the FSA. The one thing he didn't mention was the name of the businessman who had offered to help him. The next day, however, Murad began to panic, thinking that by withholding that information, he'd misled the agents. He sent them a letter apologizing for the oversight and met with the agents a second time at the same Jack In the Box. They told him not to worry and admonished him to stay off the computer. He has not heard from them since. (An FBI spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

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