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United States of America v. Adam Shafi

Court United States District Court for the Northern District of California, United States
Case number 15-cr-00582-WHO-1
Decision title Order Denying Motion to Dismiss
Decision date 3 May 2017
Categories Material support to terrorism, Terrorism
Keywords Foreign fighters, material support, Provision of material support for terrorism, Terrorism (terrorism, conspiring, killing of civilians, material support)
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Adam Shafi, an American citizen, was arrested for attempting to join a foreign terrorist organization in Syria. Shafi first disappeared while on a family trip to Cairo, Egypt. During this disappearance, Shafi travelled to Turkey. After returning to the United States with his family, Shafi researched ways to get to Syria through Turkey.

He also was observed leading his younger brothers in “paramilitary style” trainings and was overheard on telephone calls making statements about dying for a terrorist organization and condemning America as the enemy.

On 30 June 2015, Shafi purchased a one-way ticket to Turkey but was detained and interviewed before he was able to board the plane. Although Shafi consistently denied that he was trying to join a foreign terrorist organization, he was later heard saying that only an idiot would answer affirmatively to the federal agents’ questions.

Shafi was indicted on grounds of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.  In response, Shafi moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming that the U.S. failed to state an essential element in the indictment, the definition of “personnel.” The trial court denied Shafi’s motion to dismiss, stating the definition of “personnel” was not essential in the indictment.

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Procedural history

The U.S. Government filed a criminal complaint against Shafi on 30 June 2015 for “attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization,” which is prohibited under 18 U.S.C. §2339B (p. 789).

Shafi moved to dismiss the indictment on 9 February 2017, claiming that the government’s indictment failed to state an essential element of “material support,” namely that personnel must be under the “direction or control” of that terrorist organization as stated in subsection (h) of 18 U.S.C. §2339B (p. 791). In response, the government claimed that the indictment contained all essential elements, and that subsection (h) is a definitional provision that need not be proved (p. 791).

Shafi then added two new arguments: 1) that the rule of lenity requires subsection (h) to be considered an element of the offense and must be pleaded in the complaint; and 2) regardless of whether subsection (h) is an element or definitional in nature, it must be pleaded to avoid an unconstitutionally vague pleading (p. 791).

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Legally relevant facts

Shafi disappeared in August 2014 while in Cairo, Egypt with his family and sent a text message to a relative that he was going to “protect Muslims” (pp. 789-790). It was during this time that Shafi visited Turkey (p. 790).

After returning home to the U.S., Shafi began training his two younger brothers in ‘paramilitary style,’ and researching online how to travel to Syria by way of Turkey (p. 790).

At the time of Shafi’s interview with federal agents, he was found with a one-way ticket to Istanbul, Turkey (p. 790). Although Shafi denied allegations that he was joining a foreign terrorist organization, he was later documented as saying that “only some ‘kind of idiot’” would answer affirmatively to such a question (p. 790).

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Core legal questions

Is subsection (h) of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, which specifies that “personnel” must be under the direction or control of a terrorist organization, an essential element of the offense of material support that must be pleaded in an indictment? 

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Specific legal rules and provisions

18 U.S.C. § 2339B(h)

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Court's holding and analysis

The trial court held that subsection (h) is not an essential element of the offense, but rather a definitional provision not required in the indictment (pp. 792-793).

First, the court concluded that the language and structure as well as the legislative history of the statute supported construing subsection (h) only as a definitional provision (pp. 793-795). The court also determined that construing subsection (h) as a definition instead of as an essential element would not burden Shafi in any way (p. 795). The court then rejected the incorrect assumption of Shafi – that subsection (h) must be either an essential element or an affirmative defense – finding subsection (h) to be a definitional provision that is neither constitutionally vague nor unsupported by case law (pp. 795-797).

Lastly, the court held that subsection (h) was not an essential fact that was required to be pleaded in the indictment because Shafi was fully apprised of the crimes charged against him as well as what the government intended to prove against him (pp. 798-799).

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Instruments cited

18 U.S.C. § 2339B

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Additional materials

V. Luis, ‘Former Ohlone Student Charged with Trying to Aid Terror Group,’ 13 May 2016.

M. Apuzzo, ‘Only Hard Choices for Parents Whose Children Flirt With Terror,’ 9 April 2016.

L. Fernandez, ‘Fremont Web Developer Linked to Terrorism Charge in Solitary Confinement After ‘Contraband’ Notebook Found in Jail,’ 19 February 2016.

L. Fernandez, ‘Fremont Man, 22, Charged With Helping Terrorist Organization,’ 17 December 2015.