Daniel Seth Franey first came to the FBI's attention last summer, when a neighbor in the small, rural town of Montesano, Washington reported that the long-haired and bearded 33-year-old who lived down the road "regularly talked" about his support for the Islamic State (IS), and claimed he wanted to go overseas and "join the fight."
The tip triggered a lengthy undercover investigation by Seattle's Joint Terrorism Task Force that culminated on February 6, when Franey, a former US Army soldier, was arrested and charged with three counts of unlawful possession of firearms and two counts of unlawful possession of machine guns. According to federal prosecutors and the FBI, he told an undercover operative of his plans to ambush police officers, attack a Seattle-area military base, and invade an annual gathering of top military brass intending to "kill them all."
Annette Hayes, the US Attorney in Seattle, was emphatic about Franey being an IS devotee who advocated, she said, "the killing of non-Muslim Americans, particularly members of the US military and law enforcement." The juicy terror plot allegation was the focus of dozens of media reports about the case, and some online commenters suggested that Franey deserved the same head-severing justice meted out by the Islamic extremists he stands accused of supporting.
But, though he was effectively convicted in the court of public opinion, it turns out the alleged small-town terrorist was not charged with terrorism. In fact, prosecutors purposely passed up that opportunity.
Court documents obtained by VICE News show that the government's motion for detention, filed two days after Franey's arrest, left the "Terrorism" box unchecked among a list of reasons why he ought to be locked up. Instead, prosecutors checked the box for "felony offense, other than a crime of violence, involving possession or use of a firearm."
The public could be forgiven for thinking this was a case similar to that of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who also was depicted as a saboteur but never charged with terrorism. Mohamud was convicted in 2013 of plotting to set off a "weapon of mass destruction," a car bomb that was to explode during a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.
Like Franey, the 19-year-old Somali-born Mohamud was helped along by the FBI, which arrested him after he tried to set off a fake bomb the agency had planted. Mohamud's attorneys accused the government of "manufacturing a crime" after the FBI revealed it instructed him on how to assemble and set off the "explosive." He wound up with a 30-year federal prison sentence.
'You know who I'm after — feds, pigs, politicians, bankers, policymakers, think tankers, the whole crew... Anyone who is not furthering the black flag.'
Franey, who pleaded not guilty on Monday March 7, faces an even longer stretch — up to 50 years — if convicted in a trial that is tentatively set for April. He was reportedly caught on tape saying he "wants to travel to Afghanistan to kill American soldiers, and that all non-Muslim Americans should be killed."
US authorities depict Franey as an unstable anti-government militant who deserved a closer look to see how far he might go. One of his neighbors told FBI agents that Franey said he hated the US military for not allowing him "to leave the Army" after he enlisted, and that he railed at the system for "taking away his kids." As US Attorney Hayes put it, the Justice Department was obligated to "pursue all available leads to ensure the public was protected from any possible harm."
But while it seems Franey talked often and enthusiastically about plotting a terrorist attack, there's little indication he ever had any intention of following through with his threats until the FBI's undercover agent came along. After befriending Franey, the agent took him on an eight-month ride — sometimes literally, including a road trip along the West Coast — while recording their conversations, doling out cash, furnishing him with guns, and then busting him for illegal possession of the weapons.
Franey's hometown newspaper, The Daily World of Aberdeen, hinted in its coverage that he might have been any easy mark for a setup. "Though court documents suggest Daniel Seth Franey readily espoused Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric and talked about committing violent acts of terrorism," the paper stated, "the Montesano man and alleged Islamic State supporter also comes off as unsophisticated and lacking wherewithal."
The same day that Franey entered his not guilty plea, another US military veteran, Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 48, went on trial in New York for allegedly attempting to join IS fighters in Syria. Pugh's attorney, Eric Creizman, said the former Air Force mechanic's only crime was to voice support for IS. "In this country," Creizman said, according to Reuters, "you don't punish a person for his thoughts." Pugh was convicted on March 9 of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and obstruction of an official proceeding. He faces up to 35 years in prison.
A new report by the US House Committee on Homeland Security lists 75 cases of real or suspected IS plots against Western nations since 2014, with the US "overwhelmingly the group's main target."
So far, only two terror cases have gone to trial: Pugh's, and that of Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, 44, who was accused of plotting with others to attack a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Texas. Kareem is currently on trial in Phoenix, and his attorney claims the charges are trumped up.
Cases against would-be IS attackers are difficult to make and sometimes require staged plots, the US says, which critics see as entrapment. In Franey's case, for example, he didn't "possess" the weapons the way most might think — they weren't under his bed, in his house, or on a rack in his truck.
The government undercover agent handed the weapons to him, let him possess them, and then took them back. Franey might have handled them for an hour or so, court papers indicate. But under federal law, just holding a gun is possession, whether you own it or not, and regardless of who provided it.
Handling a firearm was something Franey was not allowed to do legally because of a domestic violence case three years ago that involved his ex-wife in Lake County, Illinois. A protective order issued as a result of the case prevents him from possessing firearms anywhere in the US. (On his Facebook page, Franey also alludes to this and other incidents as the reasons he lost rights to visit his two children.)
Until he met the undercover agent, Franey had apparently abided by the order to disarm. Charging papers state he had no guns of his own, and a search of his home turned up no weapons.
Nonetheless, Franey now faces a potentially heavy penalty. Each of the five weapons counts is punishable by up to 10 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine. If convicted, he's not likely to get the max. But don't expect Franey to come up with money for a fine. According to court records, the accused terrorist couldn't even pay his own light bill.
That's one of the details the undercover agent first learned about his target after they met last summer, tipped off by the complaints of his neighbor in Montesano, a sleepy town of about 3,900 located 100 miles southwest of Seattle. The FBI began interviewing others in the town and surrounding Grays Harbor County — best known as the childhood home of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain — who told agents they also heard Franey talk about wanting to buy an AK-47 to kill cops and soldiers.
"'I just wish I could get over there [to Syria],'" one recounted him saying. "'I would kill everyone.'"
Agents learned Franey worked occasionally as a fisherman out of the coastal town of Westport, had been subject to debt collections, and served in the Army for six years, from 2002 to 2008. He was taught to handle rifles and small arms, records show. He also helped maintain and operate a Patriot missile launching station and served at air defense outposts in Texas and South Korea.
Franey told friends he deserted the Army in 2008. Government records confirmed that, prosecutors said without providing further details. He wasn't exactly advertising his current whereabouts: His Facebook page, last updated in January, lists him as living in Alaska and claims he is "lead burger turner/flipper" for a fast-food chain that has no outlets in that state.
Some of Franey's neighbors saw him as a friendly, religious man who came to the area three years ago. He lived in a small farm home with his girlfriend, who he usually referred to as his wife, and two children. But others found him intrusive and spoiling for an argument. One neighbor, according to a Grays Harbor County Sheriff's complaint, reported that Franey tried unsuccessfully to talk the neighbor into supporting IS and flying a black flag out front. The heated confrontation ended only after the neighbor grabbed a shotgun and escorted Franey out the door.
'I just wish I could get over there to Syria. I would kill everyone.'
The angry ex-soldier appears to have found Allah within the last half-dozen years. His Facebook profile reflects a happy family man in dozens of photos in 2011, although he later referenced some relationship issues. By 2013, he began posting quotes from the Quran, anti-Israeli posters, and a photo that shows him wearing a "Research Islam" t-shirt. Over the last two years, the rise of IS became Franey's favored topic, along with gory war photos of burning bodies and dead Palestinian children. In January, he shared a photo of a Hamas soldier with the caption, "You invade my land, bomb my house, kill my family, steal our resources and then call me a terrorist?!?!"
By then, the feds were already attempting to expose Franey as a terrorist. Besides the threat he allegedly posed, the FBI said, their investigation was motivated by a desire to maintain a "positive relationship with the Muslim community," according to Frank Montoya, Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI's Seattle Division. "From our conversations with Muslim community leaders, we know they reject this type of violent ideology and actively contribute to the security of our community."
Opting not to confront Franey directly about his threats, the agency's undercover agent inserted himself into the suspect's life in July 2015, when he "posed as an individual raised as a Christian but was open to learning more about Islam from Franey," according to an affidavit filed by Federal Protective Services Agent Joseph Deaver.
The agent simply sidled up to Franey one day outside his home and struck up a conversation. Franey eventually turned the talk to his Muslim religion and began espousing his beliefs, Deaver said.
That first conversation, like all others, was recorded by the agent wearing a wire, the feds say. The tape reportedly caught Franey praising Osama bin Laden as "a diamond."
"He's a holy warrior. He's a beautiful man," Franey allegedly said of the al Qaeda leader, who died in 2011.
The agent displayed a grudging willingness to listen with an open mind. "You show me some facts and I'll look at facts," he said. They agreed to talk later, and with that the agent was in.
Eventually, as their meetings continued and they became closer, the agent told Franey he was a black market gun dealer. In the ensuing months, he invited Franey to join him on deliveries to Spokane, Yakima, and Ellensburg in Eastern Washington, and to the Los Angeles area. All of the customers in the transactions were also undercover agents.
Franey was paid by the agent to act as his lookout and was allowed to handle and occasionally shoot some of the weapons during the staged road trips. On one Spokane jaunt, the agent took a duffel bag filled with handguns and assault-style weapons into a motel room and emerged with $10,500 cash. The agent had Franey count the money and paid him $200.
The FBI operative also gave Franey money to pay his past-due light bill and other obligations. Franey wanted to use some of the money to buy guns, saying he hoped to protect his family from a police assault and perhaps use them to attack a military base.
During a staged gun run down to Santa Monica, California in September, Franey was allowed to come into the motel with the agent, who was pretending to deliver another duffle bag of weapons. While chatting with the customers — four undercover agents — Franey allegedly remarked, "Any government agents that I'm around, I feel the duty to kill."
The undercover agent allowed Franey to fire several handguns and rifles during the trips. On a November delivery run to Yakima, Washington, he allegedly tried out an AR-15 and a fully automatic AK-47 while the agent stood by. Franey said it was the first time he'd fired a gun in six years.
He was repeatedly caught on tape, the feds claim, boasting of his prowess to kill Americans.
"You know who I'm after," he reportedly said during one session, "feds, pigs, politicians, bankers, policymakers, think tankers, the whole crew... Anyone who is not furthering the black flag... To me, I think if there's a unit, you know, from the Marines and the Army getting ready to ship out, they should be hit. I think if there's the airbase, a command and control center, they should be hit."
Franey supposedly thought that taking down a large military facility, such as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, an Army and Air Force base south of Seattle with 45,000 troops and civilians would be a pushover. "Lewis-McChord would be just a little pimple to pop, man," he allegedly blustered.
He also spoke of an annual get-together of military higher-ups on the Washington coast that he and the agent could attack, prosecutors claim.
"They put the generals and colonels up a few weeks out of the summer at this place north of Ocean Shores.... They rent out this huge resort for all these colonels and generals to come to a party at," he allegedly said. "We could kill them all."
When the agent suggested Franey might want to think that fantasy through, perhaps planning exactly how he'd do it, Franey already had the answer. He could get more Muslim sympathizers, "One-hundred brothers or 50," as he allegedly boasted, to take over the resort.
But there is no indication in the indictment and affidavit that Franey actually conspired with others, associated with any "brothers," or even knew anyone who sympathized with him.
Other than the undercover agent, that is.
Follow Rick Anderson on Twitter: @Rosebd