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FBI credits counter terrorism task force with thwarting Tampa mass-shooting

A 23-year-old was suspected of planning attacks on Honeymoon Island, the Hard Rock Casino or Tampa’s Bayshore Blvd.

TAMPA, Fla. — Federal investigators allege 23-year-old Muhammed AI-Azhari, of Tampa, was in the process of secretly buying high-powered guns and silencers and was also researching IEDs, suicide vests, and explosive poisons.

The complaint says he scoped out potential targets like Honeymoon Island and the FBI's Tampa Field Office, but also researched Clearwater Beach, Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa and the Seminole Hard Rock Casino.

“It's the casino’s size and the amount of people in there it would've been a pristine target for him,” said local counter terrorism expert Bill Warner.  “And once in there, if he set up a position near the front door or just inside the front door all those people couldn't get out.”

The complaint shows the FBI had been tracking AI-Azhari for some time.  

In 2015, he was sentenced to three years on terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia before he was deported to the United States in December of 2018 living in both Florida and California.  

He returned to Tampa in 2019, and less than a year later in April of 2020, federal investigators say he began trying to purchase guns illegally on eBay. 

He was arrested May 1 by Tampa Police after the complaint alleges he showed up at a Tampa Home Depot, where he worked, carrying a gun.

“Obviously this one became very serious,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Tampa Field Office Michael McPherson.  

The FBI says they were in regular contact with police and other members of the Counter Terrorism Task Force ahead of AI-Azhari’s ultimate arrest on federal charges this week.

“Sometimes you have communication ahead of times and always afterwards,” said Special Agent McPherson.  “They know who we care about and we share with our partner agencies who we have interest in and they work with us.”

The complaint indicates Al-Azhari was extremely interested in finding a very quiet silencer for the high-powered weapons he was purchasing.

“Wow! This guy should've had giant red flags all over him,” said Warner.  “He wanted to use the silencer so he wouldn't have a mass hysteria. He could shoot up one place and move on to another before they knew what happened.”

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