Editor’s Note (11/13/23): Since this story was published, Abuayyash pleaded not guilty to the charge against him. He is detained pending trial.
A Jordanian man arrested last month in Houston on a federal firearm possession charge had spoken of “martyrdom,” a federal judge said in a court order, and was “plotting to attack a Jewish gathering,” a law enforcement source told CNN.
Sohaib Abuayyash, 20, who is in the United States on an expired nonimmigrant visa, made “statements to others that support the killing of individuals of particular religious faiths,” and “referenced an event in Houston for members of a particular religious group,” according to a federal court judge who ordered the man be detained pending trial.
Details, including the specific target, time or place for the gathering, were not immediately clear in the court documents.
Abuayyash’s attorney declined to comment to CNN.
The arrest comes at a time when the country is seeing an increase in tense rhetoric and protests around the war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, with the head of the FBI warning that antisemitism in the country is reaching “historic levels.”
The FBI began investigating Abuayyash in August after agents conducting “open-source research” saw video of him firing multiple firearms, including AR-style rifles, on social media, according to a redacted probable cause affidavit filed on October 19 in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Abuayyash applied for asylum in the US after his nonimmigrant visa expired in 2019, according to the affidavit. He’s authorized to work in the US until August 2025, and is not allowed to “possess or use firearms or ammunition,” it states.
The affidavit also says Abuayyash “has been in direct contact with others who share a radical mindset, has been conducting physical training, and has trained with weapons to possibly commit an attack.”
The affidavit provides little detail on the investigation into Abuayyash.
But in an order of detention pending trial document filed on October 24, US Magistrate Judge Christina A. Bryan wrote that Abuayyash “has viewed specific and detailed content posted by radical organizations on the internet including lessons on how to construct bombs or explosive devices; and that Defendant has made statements to others that support the killing of individuals of particular religious faiths.”
“In his communications with another individual about martyrdom, the Defendant referenced an event in Houston for members of a particular religious group,” the judge said.
Abuayyash was “plotting to attack a Jewish gathering,” a law enforcement source told CNN.
Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the FBI’s 56 field offices have been “leveraging every tool at our disposal to protect the American people from extremist violence,” one senior FBI official told CNN’s Josh Campbell last month, including by “monitoring sensitive collection.”
The latest joint bulletin from the DHS, the FBI, and the National Counterterrorism Center, obtained by CNN, states in their assessment “that lone offenders inspired by, or reacting to, the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict pose the most likely threat to Americans, especially Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities in the United States.”
Because Abuayyash was actively training with pistols and assault weapons and allegedly discussed attacking a Jewish gathering in Houston, the FBI made the decision to move forward with the most immediate charge available – the illegal possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, according to the law enforcement source. This allowed the FBI to get Abuayyash into custody and for prosecutors to ask for him to be held without bail and continue the investigation in contemplation of bringing additional charges at a later date, the source said.
In an opening statement to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray referenced Abuayyash when discussing terrorism threats in the US, saying, “The reality is that the terrorism threat has been elevated throughout 2023, but the ongoing war in the Middle East has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole other level.”
“Here in the United States, our most immediate concern is that violent extremists — individuals or small groups — will draw inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks against Americans going about their daily lives,” Wray said. “That includes not just homegrown violent extremists inspired by a foreign terrorist organization but also domestic violent extremists targeting Jewish or Muslim communities. We’ve seen that already with the individual we arrested last week in Houston who’d been studying how to build bombs and posted online about his support for killing Jews.”
Christina Garza, spokesperson for the FBI’s Houston field office, confirmed to CNN Wednesday that Abuayyash was the man referenced in the director’s remarks.
This headline has been updated to attribute a quote to the judge’s order.