Six Bosnian immigrants accused of sending money and military equipment to extremist groups in Syria used Facebook, PayPal and other readily available services to communicate and transfer funds, according to a federal indictment.
All are charged with conspiring to provide and providing material support to groups designated by the U.S. as foreign terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State group and an al-Qaida-affiliated rebel group known as the Nusra Front.
The indictment unsealed Friday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis alleges they plotted by phone, Facebook and email; shared videos and photos related to their plans on social media sites; sent money via PayPal and Western Union; and shipped boxes of military gear through the U.S. Postal Service.
The defendants are accused of donating money themselves and, in some cases, collecting funds from others in the U.S. and sending the donations overseas. It says two of the defendants, a husband and wife in St. Louis, used some of the money to buy U.S. military uniforms, firearms accessories, tactical gear and other equipment from local businesses and ship it to intermediaries in Turkey and Saudi Arabia who forwarded the supplies to fighters in Syria and Iraq.
One of the suspects, Mediha Medy Salkicevic, a 34-year-old mother of four from the Chicago suburb of Schiller Park, appeared Saturday in federal court in Chicago. Wearing an orange jail uniform, she spoke only to confirm that she understood the charges. She appeared calm and smiled occasionally while consulting with her attorney.
Speaking to reporters afterward, defense attorney Andrea Gambino stressed that Salkicevic is considered innocent until proven guilty.
The indictment says the suspects used "coded language" in their communications over email and social media, using terms like "the beach" for places in Iraq and Syria.
But it says they also used terms such as brothers, lions, mujahids and shaheeds, or holy warriors and martyrs. Such language is commonly used among Islamic extremist groups and would seem likely to draw law enforcement scrutiny if posted openly on the Internet.
But terrorism financing expert Loretta Napoleoni said it's a clever tactic to use such usual channels for communicating and sending money as long as the amounts are small, noting that so many people use them that it's easy to "go below the radar."
"That's the easiest way to send money. ... And frankly using the U.S. Postal Service is also a very good way not to be caught," said Napoleoni, author of "Islamist Phoenix." ''There is so much stuff going through."
The FBI arrested Salkicevic on Friday. If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000 on each charge. The case will be tried in Missouri, where several other defendants were arrested. A bond hearing Monday will determine whether Salkicevic travels there on her own or in custody.
The indictment alleges the conspiracy began no later than May 2013.
All six people who are charged are natives of Bosnia who were living in the U.S. legally. Three are naturalized citizens; the other three had either refugee or legal resident status, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
Besides Salkicevic, the indictment names Ramiz Zijad Hodzic, 40, his wife, Sedina Unkic Hodzic, 35, and Armin Harcevic, 37, all of St. Louis County; Nihad Rosic, 26, of Utica, New York; and Jasminka Ramic, 42 of Rockford, Illinois.
Salkicevic is accused of sending several thousand dollars to Ramiz Hodzic in St. Louis via PayPal.
According to the indictment, Hodzic sent her a photo of two sniper rifle scopes being shipped and that Salkicevic replied by saying she hoped they would be put to good use.
Salkicevic has four children and is employed, but her attorney declined to give reporters any other information about her.
Five of the defendants have been arrested; Ramic is overseas, but the Justice Department declined to say where.
Online court records do not list defense attorneys for any of the defendants.
The property manager at the complex where the Hodzics live told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the couple had been living there for 1½ years with their three children. Larry Sorth and his wife, Joyce, said they were surprised by the arrests and that the couple was friendly.
"She was very sweet, to tell you the truth," Joyce Sorth said of Sedina Hodzic.