A federal judge is considering a request by a former University of Florida student to block prosecutors from using his own statements to the FBI years ago in the Middle East in his upcoming terrorism trial.
It was the latest twist in the legal case against Mohamed Fathy Suliman, 34, that has become a full-blown, complex courtroom drama.
“If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then it’s a duck,” assistant U.S. attorney Stephen Kunz said to FBI Special Agent David Collins, who was on the witness stand for a hearing in the case last week.
“The duck would be a terrorist,” Collins replied.
Suliman – accused of traveling overseas from Florida in 2014 to join ISIS fighters in Syria – told a judge he wanted to act as his own counsel then said he wasn’t competent to represent himself. Suliman also has sought to delay the case on occasions then complained that he should be set free because his trial was taking too long. His trial has now been rescheduled to begin in February.
Suliman has clashed with his court-appointed public defender, Darren Johnson, and the judge removed him from the case last week. Suliman hired a private lawyer, Fritz Scheller, who promised the judge he would see this case through to the end – “the whole shabang,” he said.
Scheller declined to discuss the case.
Suliman also has said he wants the case against him dismissed because he needs to take care of his mother and wants to be present in his daughter’s life.
“After Allah, the Almighty and All-Merciful God and His messenger Muhammad,” he wrote in court papers, ”my mom and daughter are the dearest two in my life and all I cherish.”
At least twice, in September and October, Suliman offered to plead guilty in the case then quickly changed his mind. Suliman faces up to 20 years and $250,000 in fines. The courtroom machinations appear to be testing the patience of the judge, who wrote last month the case has a “peculiar procedural history.”
Suliman, who also briefly attended Santa Fe College in Gainesville, has encouraged U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor in handwritten letters to convert to Islam. His case was put on hold for 17 months until September, when he was being treated for mental illness. Suliman has said in court papers that he suffers from bipolar disorder but told the judge he has no issues when properly medicated.
In court last week, Collins said Suliman seemed lucid and aware of their conversation when he spoke to Suliman in Sudan. Suliman agreed to talk, saying he was medicated and fit to speak. At one point during their conversation, Suliman said he had been having a manic episode when he tried to cross the border into Syria. Collins said on the stand that Suliman gets feelings of grandiosity and desires “to change the world” while having episodes.
The hearing last week focused on whether prosecutors can use these, and other, statements that Suliman made to FBI agents overseas before he was arrested and indicted in the terrorism case as evidence in their case statements. Suliman had visited passport offices in Turkey in 2011 and later in Sudan in 2018. Suliman wants prosecutors blocked from using anything he said during his 2018 meeting in Sudan with the FBI.
The judge has not yet ruled whether those statements might be admissible at trial.
During the hearing, Suliman did not visibly react while his counsel and the prosecution questioned Collins. Collins confirmed in his testimony that Suliman and his mother were not made aware they were being recorded during that interview with two separate devices: a digital recorder and his government-issued Android.
Collins said the three-hour interview was voluntary. When Scheller questioned why he wouldn’t tell Suliman he was being recorded, Collins said he wasn’t sure whether the devices would even function properly and technology can fail.
“At the end of the day when we finish, he has the freedom to leave,” Collins said.
When he first approached Suliman and his mother, Collins said the man’s mother’s face lit up because they had positive interactions before when Collins previously spoke with her. Unforced, unarmed and unthreatened, the three had an amicable encounter, Collins said.
Suliman sat motionless, facing the judge.
In the 2011 interview, Suliman sought help to travel to Somalia from Turkey after he was refused permission to board a plane. He said he was familiar with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who joined al Qaeda and became a chief propagandist and recruiter for anti-Western terrorist groups. Al-Awlaki was killed by a CIA drone strike six weeks after Suliman’s conversation about him.
Suliman also told the FBI in 2011 he might have previously emailed al-Awlaki from his Santa Fe school account asking whether someone with a mental illness could participate in jihad, but he blamed another man – identified in court papers only as “Sideeq” – with hacking into his email account in Florida and sending other messages the government described as “more inculpatory.”
Suliman attended UF’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for two semesters in 2005 and 2006. He attended classes at Santa Fe College from 2011 to 2014 seeking an associates’ degree in psychology, which he never completed.
The FBI said that while Suliman was still living in Florida, he began researching how to travel to Syria around the time that ISIS declared it had re-established the caliphate. It said Suliman flew to Turkey in 2014 – keeping his plans secret from family and friends – and planned to cross illegally into Syria. Turkish authorities arrested him and others on a bus headed for the border.
Turkey deported Suliman to Sudan five days later, then notified the U.S. government two years later that it had arrested Suliman at the Syrian border. When the U.S. issued a warrant for Suliman, in 2020, he was living in India. He was arrested in Bangalore there in 2021 and extradited to the U.S.
In 2018, in Sudan, Suliman talked to the FBI at the embassy when he applied for a new passport after his expired. The FBI said he was told he was not being arrested and could leave the building at any time, then talked with Suliman about his efforts to reach Syria in 2014. Suliman signed a three-page statement written by Collins that summarized their conversation.
“It was your version of what was said over those three hours,” Scheller told Collins.
Toward the end of the statement, it appeared that the pen was running out of ink. Scheller joked during the hearing that it seemed the FBI must be low on funding, eliciting laughter throughout the courtroom and from the judge.
Suliman is charged with one count of providing material support for terrorism, a federal law that requires no proof that a defendant engaged in terrorism or planned to do so.
Suliman wrote complaints to the judge about not having a speedy trial, but his actions and requests, such as finding new counsel, have contributed to the trial’s delay. At one point, the judge said Suliman’s complaints about his public defender actually had been intended to delay the case.
“It is far more likely that Suliman is using this issue in an attempt for delay than it is that he actually lacks confidence in Johnson,” the judge wrote.
Scheller, the new defense lawyer, patted Suliman on the back as he was escorted out of the courtroom by a U.S. marshall at the end of the hearing.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.