U.S. Sentences Kosovar Albanian ISIS Hacker Ardit Ferizi to 20 Years in Prison
by Stephen Schwartz
On Friday, September 23, U.S. federal judge Leonie Brinkema of the Eastern District of Virginia sentenced Kosova-born Ardit Ferizi, a 21-year old citizen of that Balkan state, to 20 years in prison for hacking into an American-based retail company database and culling the names, email addresses, passwords, and other information, for some 1,350 U.S. government and military personnel. Ferizi provided the stolen data to the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) for publication on a "kill list." Ferizi also attempted to blackmail the victim company into paying for its stolen data, a common hacker practice.
Ferizi was arrested in Malaysia, where he was studying computer science and hacking assiduously, in September 2015, on a U.S. request. American investigators believed he had gone to Malaysia at the beginning of that year. After his detention, he was handed over to American jurisdiction, and his trial commenced in January. Malaysian authorities assisted the inquiry.
A Justice Department statement said that Ferizi, who used the online name Th3Dir3ctorY, pleaded guilty in June to charges of providing material support to ISIS a year earlier, in June 2015.
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin declared after Ferizi's plea, "The case against Ferizi is the first of its kind, representing the nexus of the terror and cyber threats. The National Security Division will continue to use an all-tools approach to combat this ever-evolving blended threat."
Judge Brinkema noted at the sentencing that Ferizi was afflicted with "mental health problems," but affirmed, "I want to send a message. Playing around with computers is not a game." The Kosova native offered an incoherent defense of his action, stating that he was angry that he was considered an ISIS supporter and that American diplomatic authorities would not defend him.
In a pre-sentencing letter to Judge Brinkema, as quoted in The Washington Post, Ferizi said he had been using drugs frequently and spending a lot of time online when media in Kosova claimed he had gone to Syria to fight for ISIS. In response, he raided the database of an unidentified U.S. retail sales company, in the name of the "Islamic State Hacking Division," set up by Junaid Hussain, also known as Abu Hussain Al-Britani. The latter was an ISIS figure killed in a drone operation at Raqqah, Syria, the ISIS "capital," in August 2015.
Hussain's publication of the hacked information, in a 30-page hyperlinked file, was accompanied by a claim that "We are in your emails and computer systems, watching and recording your every move, we have your names and addresses, we are in your emails and social media accounts, we are extracting confidential data and passing on your personal information to the soldiers of the [caliphate], who soon with the permission of Allah will strike at your necks in your own lands!" According to American authorities, Hussain compromised social media accounts used by the U.S. military.
Ferizi collaborated previously with another ISIS functionary, Tariq Humayun, whose jihadist alias was "Abu Muslim Al-Britani." Humayun, a former member of the Taliban who affirmed his loyalty to ISIS, was identified by the London Guardian as a "self-declared" bomb-making expert. Ferizi handed Humayun credit card information on American citizens.
In court last week, Ferizi said, "I feel so bad that what I did made people scared. I'm so sorry." In writing to the court, he disclaimed loyalty to ISIS, and denounced the jihadist network. He said that like most Kosovars, he was grateful for American intervention against Serbia in 1999.
His mother wrote to the court alleging that the effect of Serbian terror when Ferizi was a child of four had caused psychological harm to him. She said that the Kosova media coverage stating he had gone to Syria "worsened Ardit's health situation."
That explanation was discounted even by Ferizi's defense attorney, Elizabeth Mullin, who said, "It was a completely nonsensical, juvenile response because he was a nonsensical, misguided teenager who really didn't know what he was doing."
Ferizi was clear-headed enough to pursue his hacking activities, from Malaysia, in various parts of the global internet, including Israel, Serbia, Greece, and Ukraine, among other countries. Before he aided ISIS, he established a network of "Kosovar Hackers' Security, Pentagon Division." The complaint by U.S. prosecutors against him disclosed hacking of Hotmail accounts and of 7,000 Israeli credit cards, among numerous other online resources.
Judge Brinkema was unmoved by appeals by Ferizi, his mother, and his attorney, and imposed a maximum sentence of 20 years, following Justice Department guidelines. In addition, he could have faced an enhanced punishment of five years in jail for unauthorized computer access. Ferizi has stipulated that when his prison term has ended he will return to Kosova and will not come back to the United States. The Kosova Republic has criminalized combat abroad with punishment of up to 15 years behind bars.