ST. PETERSBURG — As far as Avni Osmakac is concerned, the FBI killed his brother.
Before Sami Osmakac started to descend into mental illness, he was a different person than the radical Islamic terrorist Avni Osmakac says the FBI created.
Sami Osmakac played soccer, his brother says, sang rap music, went to nightclubs and dated girls of different faiths. He wanted to be a professional kickboxer and even thought about becoming an FBI agent.
Although his family followed some Muslim traditions, they’re secular; even now, they sell pork in their small food store and bakery in St. Petersburg and they don’t pray or go to mosques.
Now, Sami Osmakac is waiting to be sentenced after a federal jury convicted him of trying to possess a weapon of mass destruction and possessing an unregistered machine gun. He faces up to life behind bars.
He was arrested Jan. 7, 2012, in the culmination of an FBI sting. Authorities said he planned to detonate a car bomb outside MacDinton’s Pub in South Tampa and then drive to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, where he planned to use grenades and guns to take hostages, demanding the release of Muslim prisoners. After that was accomplished, the plan was to feign surrender and then, as law enforcement moved in, set off a suicide vest.
In a “martyrdom video” he created just before his arrest, Sami Osmakac said the attack was payback, partly for the death of Osama bin Laden. In one secretly recorded meeting with an undercover FBI agent, Sami Osmakac can be heard saying what he was about to do would be the second 9/11.
The government says the FBI sting was necessary because officials can’t afford to wait until dangerous people find weapons on their own and launch real attacks and hurt innocent people.
But Avni Osmakac says it’s all nonsense. His brother, he says, was always a good person, a typical American immigrant. Once, he saw a dog hit by a car and took it to a shelter, saving its life, Avni says. He used to take old bread from the family bakery and give it to homeless people. “He did that every day,” Avni Osmakac says. His brother, who is said to have wanted to kill Americans was “helping homeless Americans.”
They used to go to nightclubs and have fun. One of the clubs he says they frequented: MacDinton’s.
Before authorities made contact with his brother, Sami had no use for bin Laden, Avni Osmakac said.
“Somebody imprinted all this in his head,” Osmakac said. “In the beginning, he used to say bin Laden is the worst person. ... He didn’t like bin Laden at all. He would say, ‘This is not Muslim. It has nothing to do with us.’ ”
Before this all started, he said, his brother thought all war was bad and that 9hu/11 “was just crazy. It had nothing to do with religion.”
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Avni Osmakac says the first time he ever saw his brother pray was in July 2009 when they were flying home from their brother’s wedding in Kosovo. It was the day, he said, the switch was flipped on his brother’s mental state.
The brothers had become American citizens earlier that year, Avni Osmakac says. They studied and took the test, swore an oath to the United States, promising to defend it from all enemies foreign and domestic.
The family left Kosovo in 1992 when Sami, the youngest of eight, was about 4½ and Avni was 7. They were refugees from the civil war there where Muslims were being targeted for genocide. They fled to Germany, where they lived for eight years. But Germany told them they had to leave, and they applied to go to Australia and the United States.
Both countries accepted them, Avni Osmakac says, and they elected to come to America because it’s closer to Kosovo.
Avni said that when they arrived, the family of 10 had only three or four suitcases of belongings. Their father had owned a bakery in Kosovo, and his parents went to work saving money until they could open their own bakery in St. Petersburg. Sami was there from the beginning helping his father with the business.
In July 2009, their older brother got married in Kosovo.
When they were in Kosovo, Avni says, his brother bragged to friends and relatives that he was an American now. They drank alcohol, dated girls and danced.
But when they were flying back home, Avni Osmakac says, something happened on the plane on a flight between Washington, D.C., and Tampa. The jet suddenly lost altitude and the lights went off.
People were crying and screaming. The flight attendants took their seats, and the pilot told everyone to prepare for an emergency landing.
Avni Osmakac looked over at his brother, who had gone pale. For the first time in his life, Sami Osmakac was praying.
“I knew I was going to die,” Avni Osmakac says.
Then the plane’s problems passed. The whole episode lasted only a minute or two, he says.
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When they got home, they told their friends and family what happened. Avni Osmakac says his brother wouldn’t admit he was scared. Instead, he teased Avni Osmakac about his reaction.
A few weeks later, though, Sami Osmakac started isolating himself from his family and friends, Avni Osmakac says. Sami wouldn’t go with him to soccer games, like he always had; he wouldn’t go to clubs or shoot pool. He couldn’t sleep. He would leave the house at 2 a.m. saying he needed to walk the beach to clear his head.
One time, Avni says, he saw his brother in the middle of the night sitting in front of a television that wasn’t turned on. He said he was watching television.
Avni admits it may be hard to believe that one bad experience on an airplane could push someone into mental illness, but he said doctors explained that could happen, especially because they had a history of mental illness in their family, including a sister, two grandfathers, two aunts and two uncles.
Worried family members told Sami Osmakac he needed to go to the doctor, Avni Osmakac says. But he refused to go. He said the doctors would kill him.
Avni Osmakac says his brother started going to mosques looking for help, looking to escape the voices that were screaming in his head.
And as Avni Osmakac sees it, that’s when the FBI and government informants pounced. He says says he thinks the FBI has people inside mosques who say radical things and then target the people who bite.
Someone in a mosque told Sami Osmakac that if he read the Quran and prayed, the voices in his head would be silenced and the delusions would go away, Avni Osmakac says.
“They put all this evil stuff in his head making it sound like he was going to kill people,” Avni Osmakac says.
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Although government witnesses testified at Sami Osmakac’s trial that the government’s paid informant met him in September 2011, Avni Osmakac says they met in early 2010. He says the informant, who owned a store in Tampa, offered to pay Sami and his friend $10,000 or $20,000 to go fight in Afghanistan. And he says, the informant showed him horrifying videos of people being killed in Yemen to put ideas in his head about fighting Americans.
“I was living a normal life,” Avni Osmakac says. “My brother was living a normal life, until somebody came and implanted all these things in his head.”
Sami Osmakac’s attorneys made similar arguments during his trial in May, telling jurors the government egged on their client and provided him nonworking guns and explosives. Prosecutors, though, played for jurors video and audio recordings that showed Osmakac pushing ahead with his plans, even when given opportunities to back out by the informant and the agent.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney said during the trial that the FBI decided to deploy the undercover agent only after Sami Osmakac tried to buy guns from drug dealers.
All the FBI did in this case,” she told jurors, “was give the defendant the opportunity to commit the attack he wanted to.”
Avni Osmakac says the government didn’t turn on the recorders until after they radicalized his brother and planted ideas in his head.
He said the trial and its aftermath has nearly ruined the family. His parents sold their house to pay $200,000 in legal fees for all the different attorneys for his brother since his arrest, Avni Osmakac says. Their relatives in Kosovo won’t talk to them anymore because they’re scared.
His brother, he says, is “sick to this day ... on suicide watch and wearing a paper dress” in jail.
Although he says he’s disgusted with the justice system, Avni Osmakac says he would fight to defend America if anyone invaded the country.
“My brother had nothing against America, nothing against anybody,” Avni Osmakac says. “It took 118 agents over two years to do this ... wasting all that time and money entrapping sick people instead of catching people who really do something.”
“They’re getting away with murder,” Avni Osmakac says. “He’s not the same person, and they’re trying to put him in jail for life. That’s murder. You’re killing my whole family.”