Earlier this month, the FBI announced the arrest of 18-year-old Mateo Ventura of Wakefield, Massachusetts, over allegations that he provided financial support to ISIS. According to the DOJ's press release, Ventura was indicted for "knowingly concealing the source of material support or resources that he intended to go to a foreign terrorist organization."
Yet, according to the government's own criminal complaint, Ventura never gave a dime to any terrorist groups, while the only "terrorist" he actually had any contact with was an undercover FBI agent who befriended him when he was 16-years-old and convinced him to produce gift cards with small amounts of cash on them. The FBI agent told Ventura not to tell anyone about their 'intimate online relationship,' including his family, according to The Intercept.
Contrary to the sensational narrative fed to the news media of terrorist financing in the U.S., the charging documents show that Ventura gave an undercover FBI agent gift cards for pitifully small amounts of cash, sometimes in $25 increments. In his initial bid to travel to the Islamic State, the teenager balked — making up an excuse, by the FBI’s own account, to explain why he did not want to go. When another opportunity to travel abroad arose, Ventura balked again, staying home on the evening of his supposed flight instead of traveling to the airport. By the time the investigation was winding down, he appeared ready to turn in his purported ISIS contact — an FBI agent — to the FBI. -The Intercept
Whats more, Ventura's father, Paul, told the outlet that his son suffered from childhood developmental issues which were so bad that he was forced to leave school due to constant bullying from other students.
"He was born prematurely, he had brain development issues. I had the school do a neurosurgery evaluation on him and they said his brain was underdeveloped," said Ventura. "He was suffering endless bullying at school with other kids taking food off his plate, tripping him in the hallway, humiliating him, laughing at him."
In short, instead of an actual terrorist - or terrorist adjacent, Ventura's case is yet another example of the FBI grooming a mentally unfit young man to commit a crime that would not have other wise occurred.
"There is still significant use of informants and undercover agents in FBI investigations who aren’t just gathering information about potential crimes but are actively suggesting ideas for crimes or making it easier for people to do the things that they claim they want to do," said Naz Ahmad, acting director of the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, or CLEAR, project at the City University of New York School of Law. "There are documented cases where the government has provided people everything that they needed to execute a plot. Informants and undercover agents have often been used as a tool in these investigations to prod things along."
In 2021, Paul Ventura said that armed FBI agents visited his home to inform him that his son had been browsing websites "he should be looking at," and connected the father with who the FBI said was a counselor - who Paul says had no knowledge of his son's ongoing communications with the undercover FBI agent.
"Two years ago, the FBI came to my house and they took his computer and said he’s on these sites he shouldn’t be on. We said OK, and he wasn’t arrested at that time or anything. I didn’t hear from them again after that, but I guess over time things escalated," said Paul. "I wasn’t home a lot because I work, and he wasn’t at school because of the bullying. Instead of them telling me that he’s doing what he’s doing online and to take his computer away, they let him keep doing it."
In their case against Ventura, the government reveals that the boy began communicating with the undercover FBI agent when he was 16-years-old, and told the agent of his desire to make "hijrah," which means to migrate to territories under ISIS control. Yet, by the time the discussion happened, ISIS had been largely eliminated throughout Iraq and Syria. The DOJ says that the undercover FBI agent impersonated an ISIS member by using broken English, who then encouraged Ventura to pursue his ISIS dreams, and then told the boy not to tell anyone about their conversations.
VENTURA: I reached out to brother [A.D.] for hijrah [migration] I dont know if it is still possible but if it is I know it will take sometime.
OCE: Inshallah [if Allah wills it] I help u, but before talk have rule my brother.
OCE: U must no talk about what said here or intention to anyone. No tell family.
No tell friend. No tell ikhwan [brothers] at masjid [mosque]. No one. This for both are safety.
OCE: Intention stay between U and Allah azzawajal [the mighty and majestic].
Venture than sent a $25 Google Play gift card to the undercover agent, along with the redemption code. The FBI agent also had the 16-year-old record an audio file of himself pledging allegiance to the leader of ISIS and then sending the clip via chat.
Over the next year two years, Ventura continued sending small amounts of cash through gift cards to the FBI agent, mostly through gaming stores like Steam, PlayStation Network, and Google Play. The amounts of his small transactions, which spanned over roughly two years, added up to a total of $965 during the time that he was a juvenile, and another $705 after he became a legal adult.
All the while, Ventura’s conversations with the FBI undercover operative online continued, including promises to make a passport and assurances that he would teach himself Arabic “very fast” in case he traveled to Egypt on behalf of the group.
In the end, Ventura appeared to get cold feet. In September 2022, when he was 17 years old, he told the agent that he could no longer “go for hijrah,” because he had been “hurt very bad in fall and can no longer walk.” The injury was an excuse that the FBI — which, according to the affidavit in the case, interviewed Ventura six days thereafter — concluded had been made up by the teen. -The Intercept
This January, just after Ventura turned 18, he resumed contact with the FBI agent via encrypted messaging - apologizing for the long time since they had last spoke. He expressed interesting in traveling to the Islamic State, while the two also discussed the possibility of Ventura dying in an attack by ISIS fighters somewhere in the world - or possibly attending a training camp.
Ventura, at the FBI agent's direction, took a video of himself which he sent over the chat in which he noted that he had grown a beard. The FBI agent told him that he looked "strong" and "Look (sic) like lion."
He then sent another $25 via a Google Play gift certificate, and finally - on April 10, booked a flight on Turkish Airlines to Egypt.
Instead of actually boarding the flight, however, Ventura contacted the FBI's National Threat Operations Center to report a tip - and demanding "10 million dollars in duffel bags" if he were to provide information on future terrorist attacks. "I known (sic) you thought I am retarded fool but jokes on you I will not admit I sent this or communicate until the cash is delivered," he said, according to the criminal complaint.
In the next few days, Ventura called the FBI several more times to offer to 'help' fight terror - including to help stop a future ISIS terrorist attack, and to provide information on the people who would be carrying them out, in exchange for money and legal immunity.
According to the affidavit, on April 20, Ventura was informed in a FBI phone call that information he had provide was "not specific and therefore not actionable."
Then in early June, Ventura was arrested and charged with one count of "knowingly concealing the source of material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization," based on the gift cards.
As the Intercept notes, while Ventura's arrest was framed by the DOJ as the foiling of an Islamic State funding operation, there's no evidence that Ventura had actually been in contact with the terrorist group - yet he now faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of providing material support to a terrorist group.