A former New York stockbroker has been convicted of becoming a sniper and trainer for the so-called Islamic State terrorist group.
The trial of Ruslan Maratovich Asainov, a Kazakh-born US citizen, was the latest in a series of cases against people accused of leaving their homelands around the world to join the militants in combat.
A former broker who doted on his toddler daughter, Asainov converted to Islam around 2009 and later resigned from his job and started watching radical sermons online, his ex-wife told the court.
He left his family in Brooklyn in December 2013 and made his way to Syria as IS stormed to power.
In a case built largely on Asainov’s own words in messaging apps, emails, recorded phone calls and an FBI interview, prosecutors said he fought in numerous battles and built a notable profile in IS by becoming a sniper and later an instructor of nearly 100 other militants.
“The evidence has shown that people died as a result of the defendant’s conduct. It is time to hold him accountable,” prosecutor Douglas Pravda told a Brooklyn federal court jury in a closing statement.
Asainov, 46, didn’t testify, telling the court he was “not part of this process”.
His lawyers did not dispute that he went to Syria and affiliated with IS, but they argued that his accounts of his role were boasts and did not prove anyone died as a result of his conduct.
“Nobody’s arguing to you that Mr Asainov’s view of the world is not a very warped view,” Sabrina Shroff, defending, said , asking the jury “not to confuse his views with what is needed to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt”.
“There’s not a single piece of paper that ties Mr Asainov to anything in the Islamic State that would tell you he, in fact, is the person he claims to be,” she said.
Jurors, whose identities were kept confidential, found Asainov guilty of offences that include providing and attempting to provide material support to what the US designates a foreign terrorist organization.
The jury also concluded that his actions caused at least one death, a finding that means he faces the potential of life in prison. His sentencing is set for June 7.
Asainov was picked up by US-backed forces and turned over to US authorities.
When FBI agents questioned him, he gave his occupation as “sniper” and frankly detailed how he’d taught others, explaining that he could spend three hours just on the fine points of pulling a trigger, according to video played at trial.
He had also been forthcoming in messages and calls from Syria to friends and the now-ex-wife he’d left behind, according to trial evidence.
He sent photos of himself in camouflage uniform with a rifle and pictures of the bloodied bodies of men with whom he said he’d fought.
He texted one confidante — in fact a US government informant – a rundown of prominent battles in which he said he’d participated and asked for money to buy a night scope for his rifle.
Later, with the sounds of explosions in the background of Asainov’s phone, he asked another friend for money to send his new wife and children to safety as US-backed forces fought to capture the extremists’ de facto capital of Raqqa in 2017.
After his arrest, a defiant Asainov declared in court that he was an “Islamic State citizen, not a United States citizen” and jail officials said they later found a hand-drawn version of the militants’ flag in his cell.
He told his mother on the facility’s recorded phones that her son “doesn’t exist anymore” replaced by a man who saw himself as a holy warrior who fought and killed on divine command, didn’t regret it and would “be fighting until the end”.
“I will never change this path, even if they give me freedom a thousand times,” he told her in one translated call.
“Do you understand?”