BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — After 130 people were killed in the November 2015 coordinated attacks on Paris, the Islamic State promised similar bloodshed on big cities in the U.S., like Chicago, Boston and New York.
Soon after, they found the man they wanted to carry out those attacks, Rochester, New York, native Emanuel Lutchman, a convicted terrorist sympathizer.
“Our case against Emanuel Lutchman had peaked in late December,” said Joseph Testani, supervisor of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. “We had actually been investigating him for several months before that.”
Testani shared details of the investigation exclusively with WISH-TV sister station WIVB, as much of the case was recently declassified.
Those details show Lutchman’s progression from violent threats to action.
“We started an investigation, and we were trying to determine whether his words were going to be for filled by his deeds,” Testani said. “And in December, we learned the answer to that.”
By 2015, Lutchman had a lengthy rap sheet that included a five-year prison term for armed robbery, during which he converted to Islam and taught himself Arabic.
While in jail, Lutchman learned of Mufid Elfghee, a convicted terrorist also from Rochester with a plot to hunt down and kill members of the U.S. military who served in the fight against ISIS, Testani said.
Once he was released, Lutchman began consuming Islamic State propaganda, sometimes well produced videos full of threats of violence and world domination; media consumed by a vulnerable and sometimes troubled audience.
“They have exploited that like no other group has,” Testani said of the Islamic State’s use of digital propaganda and social media. “They get online and they use the applications in the social media platforms that our children are using. Our belief is that, by reviewing those materials over and over, an individual can become radicalized.”
That’s exactly what was happening to Lutchman in 2015, Testani said.
When it was confiscated, the FBI found multiple threatening videos on Lutchman’s cell phone. Because they have been declassified, they were shared with WIVB.
By late December 2015, Lutchman’s threats of violence were escalating, according to portions of the investigation shared with WIVB — and his target, the popular Merchants Grill in Rochester, was coming into focus.
Testani shared screen shots taken from Lutchman’s cell phone: Chilling conversations with a man known as Abu Isa Al Amriki, an ISIS coordinator who becomes his direct link to the Islamic State.
“Abu Al Amriki knew that New Year’s Eve was coming up, he refers to the Americans as people who will be celebrating on New Year’s Eve as kuffar, and then he asked Emanuel Lutchman to kill some of the kuffar on New Year’s Eve and that it was a good opportunity for Emanuel Lutchman to do that,” Testani said.
Doing so would show his allegiance to — and secure his membership in — the Islamic State.
“Lutchman’s plan was, in concert with another individual, go into the Merchant’s bar and grill in Rochester on New Year’s Eve with a machete, create mayhem in that bar by stabbing and slashing patrons,” Testani said. “When the crowd panicked, they were looking to grab an individual and throw her in a car with duct tape, zip ties, bring her back to the place that Emanuel Lutchman was living, bring her into the basement and behead her on video while claiming responsibility of the Islamic State and their allegiance to the Islamic State.”
Testani said Lutchman Merchant’s “we believe as an act of revenge.”
Lutchman was known to panhandle outside the bar, but authorities say it was more than that.
“He wasn’t sitting on the street with a hat out,” Testani said. “When young people would come out from that establishment, he would intimidate them into giving him money to the point where they complained and ultimately the bar complained and the police responded.”
Lutchman pleaded guilty last August to aiding the Islamic State. The plea meant no trial, and few details about the case would be released.
As a result, Lutchman’s family and others claimed he was mentally impaired and not capable of carrying out such an attack.
Federal agents knew otherwise.
“We don’t view Emanuel Lutchman as simple or stupid,” Testani said. “He’s uneducated, no doubt. But he’s a smart person. He taught himself Arabic” in jail, as one example.
A day before Christmas, with 24/7 surveillance, federal agents followed Lutchman and an informant who was posing as a friend, according to a video taken from his cell phone. The video, shot by the informant, shows Lutchman in a full head scarf speaking a mixture of English and Arabic, pledging allegiance to ISIS and promising to kill Americans.
In the video, taillights can be seen in the passenger side mirror. Agents watched Lutchman record his final video and then moved in to take him into custody.
Testani said the case started with a tip from a concerned member of the community, outside law enforcement. The simple but effective slogan against terror — see something, say something — led to the arrest.
“Without tips from the community or our partners in law-enforcement, we will not get on to people like Mufid Elfghee or Emanuel Lutchman in our communities. They are instrumental,” Testani said. “He was going to go into that bar. If it was not for law enforcement intervention, the Join Terrorism Task Force, federal, state, local members, he was going into that bar that night and committing an attack. No doubt in my mind. 100 percent.”
Additional intelligence obtained by task force members during their investigation of Lutchman led them back to the man with whom he was communicating, who was directing him to carry out the attack.
In May of 2016, five months after Lutchman was taken into custody, U.S.forces moved in on Abu Isa Al Amriki, killing him and his wife in an airstrike that left their home in rubble. That attack would likely not have happened without the investigation that started in Rochester.
FBI agents noticed another significant detail during their investigation. Screen shots from Lutchman’s phone showed not only did Al Amriki text easily in English, but he told his young recruit, “I’d love to come back to the states to do an operation.”
That suggests he had been to the U.S. before, or that he’s an American convert, just like Lutchman. The surname Al Amriki, in Arabic, can be translated “of the American” or “the American.”