Why was Al-Azhari interested in the S2 Institute?

Several news reporters reached out to us today to ask about the photos of the S2 Institute’s Tampa office that were discovered on the phone of Muhammed Al-Azhari. Rather than respond individually, we have decided to share what we know with the S2 community here on our web site.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Muhammed Al-Azhari was arrested by agents from the Tampa FBI office and charged with attempting to provide material support for a designated foreign terrorist organization. In addition to Al-Azhari’s fascination with ISIS and Omar Mateen (the perpetrator of the Pulse Nightclub shooting), evidence documented in the criminal complaint strongly indicates Al-Azhari was plotting a mass shooting in the Tampa Bay area. More specifically, the complaint against Al-Azhari documents his effort to acquire weapons and activities in surveying local targets including Clearwater Beach, Honeymoon Island, and possibly other locations based on his Internet search history.

Among the many items found on Al-Azhari’s phone, were two screenshots of the S2 Institute’s Tampa office dated 8 February and 8 March 2020. The question posed to us today, “What was his interest in S2?”

Below are extracts from the criminal complaint:

Candidly, we are unsure of his intentions based on the info we have at this time. The criminal complaint provides little detail and we have not received further information from the FBI. We suspect he was interested in S2 as a possible source for firearms training. We are well known in the Tampa region as a source for firearms tactical instruction. However, our records do not list him as ever attending any S2 courses, nor does any of our staff recall having any interaction with him.

It is also possible Al-Azhari was surveying S2 as a possible target due to our focus on anti-terrorism education and/or our activities as expert commentators for news media on matters related to violent extremism and mass homicide. However, in our opinion, this scenario is unlikely. Although lone terrorists sometimes select targets based on personal reasons, there are far more advantageous and strategically-valuable targets in our local area.

On a more educational note, the criminal complaint against Al-Azhari is an excellent case study for anyone engaged in threat assessment of potential lone terrorists. Al-Azhari exhibits many warning behaviors and distal characteristics when evaluated through the prism of contemporary threat assessment instruments such as Meloy’s TRAP-18 model. Perhaps that’s a topic for another article soon.

This is also a great reminder for all of us in the security training industry to maintain our guard against students with ill-intent. This is the second incident that we are aware of where a terrorist (or suspected terrorist) may have been interested in benefiting from our training activities.

UPDATE 30 MAY 2020

As a new development regarding the Al-Azhari situation, his 21-y/o sister, Heba Momtaz Alazhari, was shot dead by Temple Terrace Police yesterday after she attacked an officer with a butcher knife.

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