JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Shelton Bell stood out at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville.
Not because he was a strawberry blonde American who converted to Islam. It was more because of the way he dressed — in headgear that resembled garb worn by remote tribes in Afghanistan — and mostly because of what he said.
In mid-2012, a parent was concerned that Bell, who now faces federal terrorism charges, was “in conversation with his son about inciting violence and talking about jihad and talking about weapons,” said Parvez Ahmed, the center’s board secretary.
Mosque leaders called the FBI, setting into motion a case that came to light this week. Bell, now 19, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiring and attempting to provide material support to terrorists. He faces up to 15 years in prison for each of the two charges.
Bell is in jail in Jacksonville, awaiting trial on unrelated county charges. He has not yet retained an attorney on the federal case. A woman who answered the door at one of Bell’s last known addresses Thursday in a small, rural neighborhood in Jacksonville said she was his mother and that his lawyer had advised her not to talk. Asked if she had any indication of what led to the charges, she said, “None at all.”
According to the indictment released Thursday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Bell had planned to travel to the Arabian Peninsula and join Ansar Al-Sharia, which is an alias for al-Qaida there. The group has taken responsibility for multiple attacks on Yemeni forces, including a suicide bombing during a parade in May 2012, which killed more than 100 Yemeni soldiers.
Investigators reported that Bell and others between May and September 2012 participated in physical, firearm and other training to prepare for armed conflict in the Middle East. Bell is also accused of soliciting others, including young people, to travel overseas with him to train.
The federal indictment says that Bell and an unidentified person performed “a night-time mission” and vandalized religious statues at a Jacksonville cemetery.
In September 2012, Bell and a juvenile went to Amman, Jordan, and made contact with someone who investigators claimed could help them travel to Yemen to participate in violent jihad. It’s unclear from the federal court documents whether Bell actually made it to Yemen, and prosecutors aren’t taking questions about the case.
What’s even more mysterious is why Bell — described by one friend as “sweet and nice” — would want to be trained as a terrorist.
Teresa Gorczya of Jacksonville said in a Facebook message that she met Bell in ninth grade Spanish class. He “dressed preppy” that year, she said. The next year, he grew his hair out. Gorczya said she lost touch with him after she switched schools, but ran into him again a couple of years ago. He told her that a friend had suggested he read the Quran.
“He immediately converted after a couple of chapters,” she said. “He said he just knew it was the way to go.”
Gorczya said that Bell dropped out of high school and supported himself by fixing computers. He opened a repair shop at a Jacksonville flea market.
Bell began attending prayer services at the Islamic Center in 2012 but was not a member of the mosque, said Ahmed.
He said Bell “stood out because he was tall, and had out-of-context clothing from the Islamic gard. He was very different. And most people thought he had some unusual views, and they would say, ‘that’s just incorrect.’ ”
But Ahmed said the first major red flag came when the parent approached the board.
“It is not unusual for people to have different views on Islam,” he said.
Ahmed said the FBI met with mosque members and the parents of the child Bell had approached, then contacted them in December, when agents asked members to notify them if Bell showed up, which he didn’t.
According to arrest reports released by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, a woman said she dropped her computer off to be fixed by Bell and she told authorities that she couldn’t reach him to get her computer back.
Ultimately, authorities said, Bell disappeared with several people’s computers and thousands of dollars in cash from at least one person.
The reports said several people took their broken computers to Bell’s booth at the Pecan Park Flea Market and left them with him to repair. When they approached him later, he said was still working on them. Then he closed up his booth and removed all the computers, the reports said.
A Jacksonville Sheriff’s deputy wrote that Bell cleaned out his booth and bought a one-way ticket to Israel.
The federal indictment states that Israel wouldn’t allow Bell and the unnamed juvenile to enter the country — but Bell went on to travel to Turkey and Jordan and also attempted to travel to Yemen “to find a location where they could participate in violent jihad.”
Jacksonville deputies wrote in their report on the grand theft case that Bell stayed in the Middle East for two months at the end of 2012, then returned around New Year’s.
Gorczya said that she recalls talking to Bell upon his return.
“I do remember specifically, him saying his goal was to reach Saudi Arabia so he could fight with his fellow Muslims to fight against their corrupt government,” she said. “Almost immediately when he got there, he was arrested and held captive for a week or so, and sent back to the USA where FBI was waiting on him, and questioned and interrogated him for hours.”
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush
Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Fla.