Inside a young Jersey Shore man's alleged path to ISIS

New Jersey Advance Media, New 7, 2017

By Alex Napoliello

Point Pleasant -- The web searches relating to ISIS propaganda allegedly came in rapid fire.  

"Where to buy black jihad flag," "france terrorist attack," "isis propaganda video."

At least two dozen of these types of internet searches were among the thousands officials say Gregory Lepsky, 20, who is accused of plotting to build a pressure-cooker bomb in support of ISIS and detonate it in New York City, made in a one-month period earlier this year.

Those searches, along with other internet communications, reveal a disturbing path of how an alleged home-grown would-be terrorist from New Jersey may have become radicalized with the click of a mouse.

The 2017 "threat assessment" report from the State Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness ranks homegrown violent extremists as the single-highest threat to New Jersey. But people like Lepsky are often the hardest to track, officials said.

The office's deputy director, Steven Gutkin, said in a phone interview Sunday that Lepsky was not on law enforcement's radar until police were called to his home in February after a family member had reported he attacked the family dog. 

Gutkin said law enforcement officials rely on family and members of the public to come forward if they observe odd activity or a change in behavior.  

"We strongly encourage people to report anything that appears out of the ordinary," Gutkin said. "We would rather look at hundreds of things that come out to be nothing than miss the one thread that might lead to something that could be something nefarious underway."  

First signs of radicalization 

A family member living with Lepsky told investigators that his behavior started to change in December 2016. He had approached the family member and made a comment about how gay people "are not tolerated in the Muslim faith," followed by a slashing motion to his neck, according to court documents.

But Lepsky's first mention of ISIS, officials said, came the following month in a series of text messages to another family member living in the United Kingdom.

The text message read, in part, "Allah (the most exalted) commands us Muslims to fight against the desbelivers (sic) until there is none left!"

Lepsky told the family member that he can show him videos on how to make an improvised explosive device (IED) "so u (sic) can carry Jihad operations in the UK."

n other text messages to the same family member, Lepsky praised ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Court records said Lepsky also sent the family member instructions on how to create a pressure-cooker bomb from Inspire Magazine, an English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda.

Two days later, Lepsky purchased a pressure cooker from a facility in Wisconsin using a family member's credit card. The pressure cooker was shipped to Lepsky's Point Pleasant home, court records say.

'I want to grow up and be a martyr'

Lepsky said in a Facebook message that his father was born in Chechnya, an Islamic region in Russia, but that his father did not take the faith seriously.

"But I want to be different," Lepsky wrote. "I want to be religious and grow up and be a martyr."

The person on the other end of the message dismissed Lepsky's claims, calling him "insane," court records said. Lepsky replied: "I'm actually not joking this time. I usually just [mess] with u but I actually want to die for the sake of God because when u do u get automatic heaven."

Lepsky then told another Facebook user that he recently converted to Islam and decided to go to Syria "to help my brothers fight the kuffar (non-believers)."

Court records said Lepsky posted several pictures of himself dressed in military fatigues holding guns, images of the ISIS flag and Ant-Semitic cartoons.  

He conducted research and read articles with detailed instructions on how to build a pressure-cooker bomb like the ones allegedly planted by Elizabeth resident Ahmed Khan Rahimi, who is accused of setting up bombs in Seaside Park, Elizabeth and New York City.

When officials searched Lepsky's bedroom in his Point Pleasant home, they found an empty pressure cooker behind a roll of bubble wrap in his closet, documents said. They also found books, including "Martyrdom in Jihad versus Suicide Bombing."

An FBI review of Lepsky's cell phone found that from Jan. 14 to Feb. 4 he conducted approximately 3,340 internet searches, many relating to ISIS propaganda and terrorist attacks.

He searched items like "how to make anthrax powder" and "anthrax explosive." He told investigators after his arrest that he had planned to purchase black musket gunpowder online and use it in the pressure cooker in his bedroom to detonate it in a "busy area in New York City in order to kill as many people as possible," officials said.

Law enforcement was alerted to Lepsky after a family member called police on Feb. 21 and reported that he had a weapon and planned to kill the family dog. As authorities were arresting him, Lepsky told officers that he was going to kill his mother and he pledged allegiance to Allah, court documents said.

His mother could not be reached for comment on Sunday afternoon. She told the Asbury Park Press that the charges filed against her son are "not true." 

"This is my son, I feel I'm going to die," she told the newspaper. 

Authorities said Gregory Lepsky told them he stabbed the family dog because it was "dirty" in the view of Islam.

His ties to ISIS were further exemplified after investigators found an image of the terrorist group's flag on his cell phone, officials said.  

Lepsky was taken to the hospital for treatment of an injury to his arm. He told a hospital employee, in the presence of law enforcement officers, that his name was Allah Abdel Rochmad and that he was "working for ISIS."

He later told another hospital worker that he had planned to be a suicide bomber but police thwarted his plan.

Lepsky is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. He appeared in federal court in Newark on Friday and was ordered to remain jailed until his trial. His attorney did not comment following the brief hearing. 

Reporting from the Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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