Head of terrorism task force details arrest of man accused of plotting to shoot up Detroit church

Khalil Abu Rayyan convicted on gun charges after arrest in 2015

DETROIT – The head of Detroit's Joint Terrorism Task Force spoke to the Local 4 Defenders about a Dearborn resident who was arrested on gun charges related to suspicions he plotted to shoot up a Detroit church in 2015.

Khalil Abu Rayyan, 22, was convicted on gun charges and sent to federal prison. The Defenders got an inside look at the investigation.

The FBI confirmed the number of terror threats in the United States has exploded. Not a week goes by in which the members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force aren't looking into a new case involving a person in the U.S. becoming radicalized.

Greater Grace church is home to thousands of worshipers who gather each week in song and prayer. It's one of Michigan's largest megachurches, and in 2015 it was the target of a terror plot, investigators said.

Joint Terrorism Task Force Agent Timothy Waters was alerted by a phone tip.

"Another concerned citizen who saw some postings online that were concerning let us know," Waters said.

The tip call was about Dearborn resident Rayyan, who the caller said was all over social media praising the violent actions of the Islamic State group.

"He was looking at some really horrific stuff, in terms of beheadings and killings, and even more concerning, he was making comments on it, approving how they were doing things," Waters said.

It was enough for the Joint Terrorism Task Force to dig deeper. The nearly 100-member team in Metro Detroit is made up of federal agents and local police officers. The look into Rayyan's case created an instant alert.

"He was making statements about wanting to go into a church to kill people, to include women and children," Waters said. "He talked about running people over with his car. He talked about skinning people alive."

FBI agents learned the church he was talking about was Greater Grace, in Detroit. Rayyan had been practicing loading and reloading weapons. Officials decided to alert the Rev. Charles Ellis about the threat.

"It wasn't a pipe dream," Ellis said. "It was something in his heart he intended to do."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig was also notified.

"There is this balance of not creating panic," Craig said. "That's not what we want to do."

Before 9/11, federal officials would have handled everything themselves. Today, they know the key to success is sharing information, resources and expertise.

"We have learned some painful lessons during 9/11," Waters said. "You have to share information. You have to be more open. The more people that know about what the threat is and are educated on the threat and can adequately report on the threat, the better off you are."

While the church and police quietly beefed up security, the Joint Terrorism Task Force watched Rayyan's every move.

"If you got anywhere near that church, he was going to be taken into custody," Waters said. "We were watching. We were taking steps we needed to take, but at the same time, we were trying to build as strong a case against him as we could, because of the threat he represented."

Officials had enough evidence to charge him with serious gun violations but not enough to hit him with terrorism charges. The decision was made to take him down.

"We all collectively came to the decision we just couldn't leave him out here anymore, because there was the potential that he would have acted," Waters said.

Rayyan was convicted on gun charges and sentenced to five years in prison. The Joint Terrorism Task Force said the top mission was accomplished: Nobody was hurt.

"We did the public a good service that day when we took him off the street," Waters said.

Waters said people are being radicalized in just weeks, usually through encrypted computer communications that are hard to track. There are more threats in Michigan and the rest of the U.S. than there have been at any other time in history.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force is skilled at stopping attacks, but it can't do so alone.

"We are seeing more and more attacks in the United States today," Waters said. "The public needs to be aware that the threat is out there and it is as high as it ever has been, and we need their help."

The FBI wants anyone with concerns to call in a tip, no matter how insignificant the information might seem, because lives are saved when citizens speak up.