Tennessee Social Worker Snagged in FBI Anti-Terror Sting Stays Behind Bars

Tennessee Terrorism Investigation

On Friday, July 15, in Nashville, US District Chief Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr. sentenced Georgianna A.M. “GG” Giampietro to 66 months in prison for concealing material support and resources intended for a foreign terrorist organization. He also ordered her to undergo 15 years of supervised release when she exits incarceration. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

A Tennessee social worker who put a pair of undercover FBI agents in touch with a charity linked to the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will stay behind bars for a couple more years.

On Friday, July 15, in Nashville, US District Chief Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr. sentenced Georgianna A.M. “GG” Giampietro to 66 months in prison for concealing material support and resources intended for a foreign terrorist organization.

The 37-year-old woman from Sparta was booked into Kentucky’s Daviess County Detention Center nearly three years ago on federal terrorism charges. She had faced up to 10 years behind bars after inking a Jan. 18, 2022, plea deal with federal prosecutors.

The anti-terrorism case dated back seven years and was dogged by allegations of FBI entrapment, with most court records allegedly classified for national security purposes or hidden under seal and away from public oversight.

In the end, federal prosecutors secured a conviction on only one charge, tossing eight other anti-terrorism counts from both the original and superseding indictments.

Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham

A fighter affiliated with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadi group prays in the mountainous northern countryside of Syria’s northwestern Latakia province on April 23, 2022. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images.

Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images.

“There never was any real threat to the United States, okay? There’s no threat to us. Nothing bad was going to happen,” said one of her defense attorneys, Charles D. Swift, from the Texas-based Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America. “The other thing was the extraordinary amount of resources expended on this.”

Swift, a retired US Navy officer perhaps best known as the court-appointed military attorney for al Qaeda kingpin Usama Bin Laden’s personal driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, told Coffee or Die Magazine that federal agencies spent “millions” to convict Giampietro, money he believes could’ve been better spent rounding up violent criminals.

“Here’s the problem for the government. At some point, all they can say is that a law is violated. But if you start asking the hard questions, you begin to ask why all this money is being spent in the first place,” Swift said. “Rather than declaring victories, we’re expanding this.”

Federal officials in Nashville declined to disclose the costs of the probe and prosecution to Coffee or Die. While they conceded the judge imposed a prison sentence lower than the 10-year stretch urged by prosecutors and the federal sentencing guidelines, they strongly defended the sting operation that snagged Giampietro.

Syria

Fighters affiliated with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadi group in Syria inspect the site of a reported drone attack that targeted a motorcycle on the eastern edge of Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, early on June 28, 2022. The US military said it carried out a “kinetic strike” targeting a leader of the Hurras al-Din jihadi group, an al-Qaeda affiliate, in the Syrian province of Idlib. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images.

Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images.

David W. Boling, the law enforcement coordinator and spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office in Nashville, said in a prepared statement that authorities “believe that the investigation and prosecution of this case provides meaningful deterrence to those who may be considering providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations.”

“US Attorney Mark Wildasin is fully supportive of investigations and prosecutions, including this one, where conduct jeopardizes the safety of Americans and affects the national security of the United States,” he added.

Court documents show Giampietro — an American citizen born in Cookeville, Tennessee, who converted to Islam as an adult — never made contact with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a violent Sunni umbrella group formed in early 2017 by a merger of five jihadi militias.

The US State Department designated it a terrorist organization shortly after it was founded, labeling it part of al-Qaeda’s network in Syria.

Syria

Syrian firefighters extinguish a blaze following artillery shelling by the Syrian regime on a fuel depot used by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadi group, on Feb. 16, 2022, in the northwestern rebel-held town of Dana. At least three civilians were killed in the shelling, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group with a network of sources on the ground in the war-torn country. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP via Getty Images.

Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP via Getty Images.

Instead, the records reveal she mostly communicated on her cell phone and online with what appears to have been a female FBI undercover agent playing the role of a recent convert to Islam.

She was joined by a fake future husband, plus and a string of other undercover actors and informants in a law enforcement drama that began playing out after Giampietro voiced support on the social media channel Telegram for overseas insurgents in 2015.

Her legal team won’t deny that they were troubling comments. Over the span of two years, she repeatedly denounced US foreign policy, including calling on God to destroy America, Russia, and Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad.

She argued that US forces “are terrorists killing innocent Muslims” in one post and typed “America can burn loool” in another.

Syria

US Army soldiers assigned to Task Force Chosin interact with local Syrian children during a partnered patrol with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeastern portion of the country on June 16, 2022. US Army photo by Cpl. Tommy L. Spitzer.

US Army photo by Cpl. Tommy L. Spitzer.

She posted an image of a headless Statue of Liberty waving an Islamic State group flag and another of the monument on fire. There was a photo showing a foreign fighter pointing a rifle next to the words “Rivers of Blood Await America” and another of a terrorist holding the severed head of then-President Barack Obama.

At another point, she told an online informant that she dreamed of marrying a jihadi and dying in an airstrike during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

But those words and images were protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. To convict her, FBI agents would need to tie Giampietro to tangible acts designed to help terrorist organizations banned by the US State Department, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

An undercover agent tried to woo her to donate to those groups in 2016, but the attempt fizzled, according to court records. Giampietro directed the person to give only to an established nonprofit in the United Kingdom that wanted to build a school, playground, and canteen for Syrian orphans and widows.

But that didn’t dissuade federal agents. They launched a second sting straddling 2017 and 2018 that “involved multiple online covert employees, undercover agents, and at least one informant,” records indicate.

Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham

A member of Syria’s top jihadi group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, holds the group’s flag on Aug. 20, 2021. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images.

Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images.

The most important member of the group was a female undercover employee of the FBI, called “UCE-1” in the court documents. She posed as a “sister” Muslim convert and actually met Giampietro several times later in real life, using the name “Aisha.”

Aisha had a fictitious fiance, “UCE-2,” or “Yusuf,” who wanted to journey to Syria and fight for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group Giampietro warned them was “no good,” according to court records.

Giampietro told the pair she had no intention of joining them overseas. Although at times she seemed drawn to help the jihadi cause, she refused to skip out on her student debt, she explained.

The FBI then used an informant who impersonated a Saudi-trained sheikh to convince her to forget the loans and go fight in Syria anyway. But she researched online the theological justification for staying home and paying off her debts and used it to refute the fake sheikh.

At the time of her arrest, Giampietro was working three jobs to help pay off her loans, which had topped $200,000, she later told interrogators.

Syrian refugees

Hiam Saadoun holds a framed photograph of her daughter Inas Abdel Salam, 23, inside a tent during a memorial service for the missing woman in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli on May 4, 2022. Abdel Salam and Jenda Saeed had boarded a migrant boat trying to reach Germany to meet up with their fiances, who are brothers. The ship, carrying 84 passengers, capsized during an army chase and sank off Lebanese shores on April 23. Authorities rescued 45 passengers, 11 of them Syrians, according to the UN, but Abdel Salam and Saeed have not been among the survivors. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images.

Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images.

Despite the setback, the FBI persisted in the sting, and Giampietro continued to fret about UCE-1 and UCE-2 getting killed overseas or arrested in London before they ever reached the battlefield, according to court records.

And that ultimately led to her downfall.

“The FBI posed this as a dilemma for her,” Swift told Coffee or Die. “It was never about helping a terrorist organization. It came down to helping a friend.”

Giampietro warned them to switch to burner phones before they left the US; cut their contacts with American friends and relatives; and purchase round-trip tickets to Turkey by way of Italy, which would allay suspicions about their ultimate destination.

She also offered to put “Yusuf” in touch with an online contact she’d made with a charity that was linked to the banned Syrian militias, a person called “Doc Syria” by FBI interrogators.

Syria charity

The online files tied to Georgianna A.M. Giampietro, 37, who was sentenced to 66 months in prison on Friday, July 15, 2022, included many pitches for aid from charities federal investigators said we tied to terrorist organizations in Syria. US Department of Justice image.

It remains unclear whether her contact was a real jihadi enabler, a scammer, or another cutout for an intelligence agency trying to snag supporters online. But Giampietro thought he was real and might be able to help UCE-1 and UCE-2.

“The ‘real person on the internet’ is the difficult part of all of this,” Swift said. “It’s difficult to judge who is real and who is not online. It’s always a question.”

And just as soon as Giampietro offered the contact’s help to the undercover agents, she withdrew it.

“Na forget about it” and “I don’t want to discuss this anymore, you’re going to get me arrested,” she typed in text messages to UCE-1.

But Giampietro’s efforts to obfuscate that original advice to her fake friends became the basis for the sole charge that survived her prosecution.

“That’s all that was left here. I would’ve loved to have taken this to a jury,” Swift said. “But the federal prosecutors gave us a deal my client couldn’t refuse. It was her choice.”

Syria

The online files tied to Georgianna A.M. Giampietro, 37, who was sentenced to 66 months in prison on Friday, July 15, 2022, included many pitches for aid from charities federal investigators said we tied to terrorist organizations in Syria. US Department of Justice image.

Giampietro had flirted with charities allegedly tied to insurgent militias before. In 2018, for example, she made three donations to “Merciful Hands,” an organization she insisted provided food and clothing to Syrian refugees.

Government experts, however, testified it was tied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. And part of the evidence prosecutors used against her was an essay Giampietro penned in graduate school probing how terrorist organizations were funded, including a section about militant groups exploiting charities.

“I mean, I’m not saying I’m going to Syria,” Giampietro told FBI interrogators during an Oct. 23, 2018, interview. “Like, I don’t. Like, I mean honestly, this is what I wanna do, I really do wanna set up charities there and help people. I don’t understand why you don’t believe me, because I can easily — wanna apply for my doctoral for social work, and I really wanna do — help these refugees and these children.”

She also conceded that, in 2015, she’d supported the terrorist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, but she told the interrogators that her enthusiasm waned the more she learned about the organization.

“I was being brainwashed, and this is — okay, so when I saw them, I was like, ‘Oh well they’re fighting for themselves,’” she said. “Just like, say, Russia comes to America. What would we do? Well, we’re gonna fight Russia back. But then I started digging deeper, you know what I’m saying? I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re killing children. They’re killing people. What are they doing right now? No. No.’”

ISIS Syria

A man injured during fighting between rebel forces and pro-government troops around the Ain Jalut school is given medical attention in the Syrian city of Aleppo early on Aug. 6, 2013. The jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or “ISIS,” and other opposition groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had captured the Minnigh air base in the northern province of Aleppo. Photo by Zakariya Al-Kafi/AFP via Getty Images.

Federal prosecutors said Giampietro wasn’t really that naive, but Swift disagrees.

He said the undercover agents and their cast of informants failed to notice what she later divulged in her interrogation. Giampietro’s brash comments about the US, Islam, and the war in Syria didn’t really reflect who she was in 2018, when FBI questioned her, or in 2019, when she was indicted, Swift added.

“This case asks a broader question: Are we spending our money responsibly? And this is a question that applies to liberty, as a whole,” said Swift, who likened the Giampietro investigation and several similar probes involving Muslim Americans to the bungled FBI entrapment of a Michigan militia crew on the eve of federal elections in 2020.

“The FBI had a vested interest in keeping this alive,” Swift said. “We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending a woman who was a little misled on the internet. That’s it.”

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Carl came to Coffee or Die Magazine after stints at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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