How a suicidal pizza man found himself ensnared in an FBI terror sting

Story highlights

  • Khalil Abu Rayyaan, 21, had a stable job but felt lonely, bitter and powerless
  • He was insecure at the gym, but online portrayed himself as an Islamist warrior
  • After he posted a photo of himself with a rifle, a woman contacted him on Twitter

The narrative portions below are based on court documents in the case of the US v Khalil Abu Rayyan

(CNN)Every day was the same for Khalil Abu Rayyan, 21, a depressed pizza delivery man from Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Working for a pizzeria in Detroit, he'd drive late nights on desolate inner city streets, smoking pot hoping to keep boredom at bay. He carried a pistol to protect himself from robbers.

Rayyan wished he could meet a girl but his strict Muslim parents didn't allow him to date. He'd been troubled since the age of 12, when he was sent into counseling after telling his teacher he had a nightmare about bringing a gun to school and killing everyone in class. Tormented by bullies, he later got into fights that led to at least three suspensions. When he was 17, he started using marijuana.
Now, high school was over and Rayyan had a stable job at his dad's pizza shop but he still felt lonely, bitter and powerless, consumed with revenge fantasies. When he got home from work and logged onto his computer, he sought out shocking content in the darkest reaches of the Internet. He began watching ISIS videos in 2014.
    He posted images of the terror group's atrocities on social media, a gruesome montage that included the beheadings of Coptic Christians, the burning death of a Jordanian pilot and men being thrown from high-rise rooftops for suspected homosexuality.
    Rayyan felt insecure around the weightlifters at the gym, but online he portrayed himself as a menacing Islamist warrior. In one picture, he's cloaked in camouflage, holding a pistol and pointing his index finger skyward. It's a gesture that signals support for ISIS. It's a gesture that put the pizza man on the FBI's radar, according to a CNN review of ISIS prosecutions in the US.
    Late one autumn day in 2015, Rayyan was at his lowest. He'd been pulled over by Detroit police for speeding and was arrested after the officer found a concealed revolver, four plastic bags of marijuana and sleeping pills in his 2001 Buick Century. Rayyan was released on bond but things looked bleak, with a seemingly endless series of court appearances on the horizon. Chronic gloom gave way to suicidal thoughts.
    He tried to purchase a new pistol and was turned away because of his arrest. That same day, he went to a firing range and rented an AK-47-style rifle as well as an AR-15-style rifle. Background checks are not required for individuals renting firearms to use exclusively at gun ranges, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Retailers may, however, use their discretion and decline to rent guns to individuals they suspect may be prohibited from owning firearms by law.
    Two weeks later, Rayyan tweeted a picture of himself holding a rifle with a caption: "Sahwat hunting." In ISIS vernacular, a sahwat is a person who opposes the terror group. Sahwat refers to the Sunni tribesmen who fought alongside US-led coalition troops during the surge in Iraq.

    First Ghaada, then Jannah

    About a week after Rayyan posted the picture of the rifle, a woman named Ghaada contacted him on Twitter. She described herself as a Pakistani girl in Cleveland whose parents were pressuring her into an arranged marriage. Within days, Rayyan and Ghaada were making wedding plans, even though they had yet to meet in person. She was Rayyan's first girlfriend.
    "While i was driving i started to cry because how happy i am to have you," Rayyan wrote.
    "Don't cry my love. Please," Ghaada replied.
    "Its tears of joy wallahi...I never felt this way before"
    "I wish I could give you a great big hug!! You have no idea. I just I could jump through this phone right now"
    "I need you"
    "You have me from our first tweet"
    Rayyan told Ghaada that he and his father planned to visit her in Cleveland so they could plan the wedding. And suddenly, Ghaada was gone. She stopped replying to his messages. She disappeared completely, and Rayyan didn't know why.
    Two days after Ghaada vanished, Rayyan got a message from a young woman named Jannah. She said she was a 19-year-old Sunni Muslim .
    Unlike Ghaada, Jannah expressed no interest in a conventional romantic relationship. She said she wanted to martyr herself for ISIS, an act of vengeance against the coalition troops and Shia militants in Syria and Iraq who had killed her husband and two of her cousins.
    "Its like i knew you all my life," wrote Rayyan. "I will ask you (to marry me) but not now."
    "Please don't rush me," wrote Jannah. "I'm depressed and very scared."
    Jannah said she dreamed of committing a suicide attack with Rayyan as an expression of undying love.
    "I'm not crazy Khalil," Jannah wrote. "It's my iman (faith). It's what I believe in. Jihad is my dream."
    "Honestly you need to think about what you want," Rayyan replied. "I cant be in this game."
    Conversation featured in court documents.
    Rayyan wasn't that into the idea of violent jihad as an expression of spiritual love. He repeatedly told Jannah that she should rethink her plans and marry him instead. They could be happy. They could start a family.
    "Dont do anything that will hurt u yourself or other people," Rayyan wrote. He later added, "Depression is real but don't let it run your life."

    A violent dream and thoughts of suicide

    As Rayyan tried to convince Jannah that martyrdom was a foolish choice, he confessed to her that he had struggled with violent thoughts himself. He said he wanted to kill the cop who had pulled him over for speeding. He claimed, falsely, that there was a sword in his car. He blustered that he once had contemplated shooting up a church near his pizza shop and he didn't intend to spare the women and children.
    "Its one of the biggest [churches] in Detroit," Rayyan wrote. "i had it planned out ... i bought a bunch of bullets. I practiced a lot with [the gun]. I practiced reloading and unloading. But my dad searched my car one day and he found everything. He found the gun ... and bulletes (sic) and a mask i was going to wear. .. It wouldve been [a] blood bath but everything happens for a reason ... I dont no (sic) what the future leads. Maybe down the line i can try again."
    Weeks of desperate messages to Jannah culminated with a foreboding phone conversation. Rayyan told her he had purchased a rope to hang himself.
    "Only in like a minute or two, it'll be over," said Rayyan. "(My family) is going to be sad for a little while but they'll get over it."
    Jannah responded that the only proper way for Muslims to kill themselves is in an act of violent jihad.
    "Like I told you before ... when it's for the sake of Allah, when it's jihad, or when it's based on our [creed] or for a cause, that's the only time Allah allows it," said Jannah. "But not to put your life to waste, and just hang yourself like you say you want to do. That's not the right thing to do."
    Later in the conversation, Rayyan said he did not want to hurt anybody else. He was interested in taking only his own life.
    "If I did it to myself, it would be easier," said Rayyan. "I wouldn't get in trouble. I'm not trying to get arrested again."

    A gun plea gets a terror sentence

    Two days after the call, Rayyan got an unexpected visit. Federal agents arrested him for possession of a firearm by an unlawful user of a controlled substance. Ra