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News / Northwest

Teen with Islamic State ties accused of planning attack on Coeur d’Alene churches claims he was self-radicalized

By Emma Epperly Alexandra Duggan and Elena Perry, Emma Epperly Alexandra Duggan and Elena Perry, Emma Epperly Alexandra Duggan and Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 10, 2024, 8:28am

SPOKANE — Like countless students, Alexander Mercurio spent his time during COVID browsing online.

Unlike most students, the Coeur d’Alene teenager ended up in the dark corners of the internet. And for a time, he “drank the Kool-aid” of white supremacy before turning to an extremist view of Islam, and eventually the terrorist group known as the Islamic State group, according to federal criminal charges filed against him on Monday.

“I’m 17 in USA … I know I try to keep secret, I’m in north Idaho very Christian and conservative parents are mad cause I’m not shaving beard and not letting pants go below ankle,” he wrote in October 2022.

Mercurio messaged online with terrorist supporters, eventually coming up with a plan to hit his father with a metal pipe, take his guns and attack nearby churches in Coeur d’Alene, the complaint alleges.

As the holy month of Ramadan drew to a close, Mercurio selected a specific church that he planned to attack on Sunday. He wrote a statement pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State and his plan to kill himself during the attack.

The plot never had a chance. The FBI foiled his plans and arrested him hours before the planned attack after spending months tracking Mercurio through informants and surveillance. The case was serious enough that it merited the attention of FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland.

“The defendant allegedly pledged loyalty to ISIS and sought to attack people attending churches in Idaho, a truly horrific plan which was detected and thwarted by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a news release. “This investigation demonstrates the FBI’s steadfast commitment to work with our law enforcement partners to stop those who wish to commit acts of violence on behalf of — or inspired by — foreign terrorist groups.”

‘It’s justified’

Dressed in a red and white jumpsuit Tuesday, Mercurio was unapologetic about his plans during an interview with The Spokesman-Review at the Kootenai County Jail.

Mercurio said he was a normal kid with friends until the last three years of high school when he isolated himself while doing school online.

That’s when he found Islam.

“I radicalized myself through that,” he said, squinting frequently. “The purpose is revenge. It’s an eye for an eye.”

Initially, he was interested in more mainstream Islam, but then began reading posts about how Western Christian countries voted for politicians who will interfere in predominately Muslim countries and attack civilians, he said.

“It’s retribution,” he said. “If our people will be slaughtered, it should happen to you.”

He continued praying and studying, Mercurio said, and eventually began to support terrorist groups like al-Qaida. In the interview Tuesday, Mercurio praised Osama Bin Laden.

He said his planned attack had nothing to do with race but instead religion, and that he hoped to target all non-Muslims.

“It’s justified,” Mercurio said.

Mercurio said he was coming home from his job at Walmart when two FBI agents introduced themselves to him, eventually telling him they knew about his plan and arresting him.

Mercurio said the charge he faces doesn’t scare him.

“It’s a consequence if I got caught,” he said. “The point was to kill until I was killed.”

Mercurio’s self-radicalization is not unique following the COVID-19 pandemic. A United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute report found that terrorist and violent extremist groups tried to take advantage of the pandemic to expand their activities and recruit people. Terrorist groups like the Islamic State group and others used conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 to draw people into other ideologies, saying the virus is a “solider of Allah” punishing unbelievers, the report says.

Research published in 2015 in a study sponsored by the Department of Justice’s Domestic Radicalization to Terrorism program points to four stages of self-radicalization concluding in acts of violence.

The first stage, pre-radicalization, paves the way cognitively for an individual to align with radical beliefs. This can include dissatisfaction with world affairs or authorities, a personal crisis or seeking information from new authority figures.

The second stage is detachment, a transition from one’s previous in-person life toward increasing time spent engaging with extremists online. This can include personifying online figures in one’s real life, seeking approval from new authority figures, lifestyle changes such as dropping out of school or work and attempting to convert others to their extremist views.

Immersion is the third stage, which involves attempts to commit oneself to the cause, potentially involving moving abroad, marrying someone in the extremist community or learning new skills a terrorist group may find advantageous, such as firearm use.

The final stage is taking action, perhaps enlisting in a terrorist group, threatening people, taking steps to carry out violence or committing acts of violence under the group’s cause.

Online messages turn to real world plans

The FBI began tracking Mercurio’s activity in group chats full of Islamic State supporters as early as 2022. Those chats included confidential informants who reported Mercurio’s increasingly specific plans to kill himself and others, documents say.

Mercurio told people in chats that his parents were Christian and unsupportive of his Muslim faith. His parents, who divorced in 2019, pushed him to go back to in-person school, he said.

“Ok brother it was calm for a couple days, now its serious. They’re sending me to in-person school again, more therapy, more stuff like that etc etc, probably not coming back any time soon,” he wrote in October 2022.

A few days later, Mercurio said his parents’ plans had expanded to potentially sending him away to a program.

“My parents want me to stop being Muslim and praying and drop everything 100 percent tomorrow or they take away absolutely everything and send me to in-person school to make sure I don’t pray or if that doesn’t work send me to youth camp or juvenile hall or something IDK please I just don’t know what to do this will probably be my last message in a long while,” he wrote three days later.

In an interview Tuesday, Mercurio said his parents divorced in 2019 because of dysfunction on both ends. Both of his parents didn’t like his online interests and tried to redirect him, Mercurio said.

Mercurio’s school computer contained more than 50 audio files of chants and songs glorifying the Islamic State group, and the FBI matched his IP address to social media profiles affiliated with Islamic State causes, according to the complaint. He told people in the group chats that his parents were continuing to discourage his faith and that he wanted to be more involved.

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In February, he sent messages about wanting to go fight on the front lines, the document said, but saying money might force him to “just do a home op.”

“I can’t say I tried to make her accept me, because she always hated my religion from day one,” Mercurio wrote, according to the complaint. “I still hold a big grudge against my parents for what they have and continue to do to me.”

In late March, he allegedly began planning an attack, as documented in messages to the informants and recorded at in-person meetings.

He wrote that there are “three or five churches within walking distance of me so targeting those ones isn’t hard. The others are farther away, I’d have to hijack a car and drive over,” he wrote.

He allegedly told the informants he was “considering” killing his father, who was always home due to a disability, but that his family was giving him less of a hard time because his grades were good and he was keeping his religion to himself.

On April 1, Mercurio allegedly announced his plans to kill people at a specific church near his house. He met up with an informant in person a few times that week, including once to buy a metal pipe he planned to hit his dad with.

Throughout the week before the attack, documents say he uploaded information from Islamic State sources to the group chat. That’s when an informant asked for photos and details of the plan. On April 6, he uploaded a recorded final message. At about noon the same day, the FBI searched the Mercurio family home.

Agents found a toolbox in Mercurio’s closet with an Islamic State flag and materials to carry out the attack, including a machete, according to the complaint. Mercurio’s father allegedly had guns locked in his bedroom closet, including an AR-15 that Mercurio planned to steal and use in the attack.

Mercurio was arrested and booked into the Kootenai County Jail on suspicion of attempting to provide material support to ISIS. He has yet to be assigned a public defender, according to court records. The FBI declined to comment further on Mercurio’s arrest.

On Tuesday, Mercurio said he hopes his parents understand his actions and that he loves them.

Withdrawn, isolated teen

Lake City High School tenth-grader Maddox Ramey recognized Mercurio’s face when he heard the news Tuesday morning, though they’d never talked. The threats to unspecified local churches disturbed him; his mother worships at a church right across the street from the high school.

“I’m still going to church; I’m not going to let a punk little kid bother that,” he said.

While he didn’t know Mercurio, he reasoned that he may have been a loner seeking connection, leading to his radicalization. According to the affidavit, Mercurio told an informant that he had once engaged in white supremacy, but found “more purpose” in the Islamic State group.

“He probably didn’t have a lot of friends, like, I’m not just saying that, he probably found a group online to reside with, and maybe they were ISIS members so he decided to join,” Maddox said, using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State.

Lake City senior Landon Burt had one class with Mercurio and recalls him withdrawing from his peers until he eventually stopped coming to class, Burt said.

Before graduating last year, Mercurio spent his last two years of high school taking online school, according to Coeur d’Alene Public Schools spokesperson Stephany Bales.

“I just never got to know him too well,” Burt said. “I’m pretty sure that anyone who tried to get to know him, he was just very closed-off, very shy.”

Burt knew Mercurio to be reclusive, but not malicious.

“It never seemed like he would do something like that. He never seemed like a person of bad intentions in this world,” he said. “I hope that he didn’t do those things, but you never know a person unless you talk to them. And I never got the chance to talk to him.”