Quick Brief, 6 March 2023: The FBI stopped an ISIS attack on Tampa’s Hard Rock Casino & Hotel in 2020

05 March, 2023 Security

(Muir Analytics’ Quick Brief is broadly based on the Pentagon EXSUM briefing method. The aim is to quickly explain a hotel threat issue in about 15 lines in executive summary format. Muir has added a quick analysis of the issue that can help hotels mitigate certain risks.)


Chain of events

  1. It was revealed in late February this year that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) spearheaded this operation, says Patch.
  2. This JTTF operation included Homeland Security, the Tampa Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the St. Petersburg Police Department, the Clearwater Police Department, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
  3. In December 2018, the perpetrator, Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, posted pro-ISIS rhetoric on social media, which attracted the attention of the FBI, says the US Department of Justice (DoJ).
  4. A US citizen, Al-Azhari adopted Islamist jihadist beliefs on a 2015 trip to Saudi Arabia with his father, says Patch.
  5. He and his father were arrested shortly thereafter for attempting to join the terror group, Jaysh al-Islam, in Syria.
  6. In 2018, after three years in a Saudi prison, Al-Azhari was deported to the US, where he lived in California and later, Tampa, Florida.
  7. In May 2019, after posting about his anger over US military operations in the Middle East, Al-Azhari pledged allegiance (bay’ah) to ISIS.
  8. In April 2020, he began collecting firearms and bomb-making materials to carry out an attack approximating the 12 June 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre that killed 49 and injured 58.
  9. His main target was Tampa’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and he also considered Tampa’s FBI office.
  10. Al-Azhari practiced statements taking responsibility for his future attack on video.
  11. Unbeknownst to Al-Azhari, the FBI had inserted an agent into his planning cycle early on, which led to his arrest on 24 May 2020 when he took possession of a Glock pistol and a suppressor.
  12. After his arrest, Al-Azhari pleaded guilty to:
    1. Providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, and,
    2. Purchasing guns and bomb-making materials to use in terrorist attacks in the Tampa Bay area on behalf of ISIS.
  13. Al-Azhari was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.
  14. Angry over his arrest, Al-Azhari’s 22-year-old sister tried to assassinate a Temple Terrace Police officer (a town in the greater Tampa area) with a knife, but officers shot and killed her in the process, says the Tampa Bay Times.


There are six takeaways. First, this case proves Islamist jihadists remain a threat to the US, and they continue to target hotels. Muir Analytics’ statistics demonstrate that Islamist jihadists are responsible for 80% of global terrorist attacks on hotels.

Second, the gravity of the Islamist jihadist threat to hotels and other civilian venues remains high. Al-Azhari and those like him are dedicated, relentless, and committed to high casualty attacks. It is notable that Al-Azhari was inspired by the Orlando attack, not repelled by it. Continued vigilance is required to counter the threat.

Third, this case demonstrates that individuals can execute punishing hotel attacks. They do not have to be done by a squad of terrorists like the devastating 2008 Mumbai attacks that included assaults on the Taj Mahal, Trident, and Oberoi hotels. Individual assailants can achieve similar results as proven by the June 2015 assault on the Riu Imperial Marhaba in Sousse, Tunisia, that killed 38 and wounded 39. And while the DoJ did not label the October 2017 Mandalay Bay attack in Las Vegas as terrorism, it was done by an individual using terrorist tactics. That attack killed 60, and wounded over 400, and the payout to the victims was over $800 million.

Fourth, the attack by Al-Azhari’s sister is not surprising. It is common for Islamist jihadist family members and close associates to collude in significant attacks and also to engage in retaliatory attacks after their loved ones/associates have been arrested or killed. Revenge is a standard tenet of Islamist jihadist ideology.

Fifth, the FBI’s actions, in this case, proved that, despite being wounded by political scandals, its Counterterrorism Division is still highly capable of stopping terrorist attacks. And despite missing a handful of Islamist operations, such as the San Bernadino massacre in December 2015, the division’s track record of stopping more attacks than it has missed cannot be denied. Its preventing another 9-11-scale attack from happening in the US for 20 years must also be recognized. This success is partly due to the FBI’s enduring counterterrorism vigilance and its artful ability to get inside and even ahead of a terrorist’s decision cycle to thwart their plans.

Sixth, modern hotel counterterrorism security requires more than just vigilance by the FBI. It requires hotels to adopt what the US Secret Service calls “protective intelligence” methods (“security intelligence” in the UK). Besides interfacing with law enforcement, protective intelligence for hotels means using statistical trends and case studies of terror attacks to:

  1. Understand the terrorist threat picture specifically as it applies to hotels, and then,
  2. Applying that understanding to mitigate specific terrorist threats.

Terrorist threat mitigation includes physical security, crisis management plans, customized insurance coverage, and legal protection. The latter is essential considering the increase of lawsuits over hotel violence negligence – witness the $800 million payout over the Mandalay Bay massacre.

Muir Analytics runs the world’s largest, most sophisticated hotel violence database – the SecureHotel Threat Portal – with over 2,400 hotel attacks (and growing.) We can provide the hospitality sector with intelligence that facilitates full-spectrum risk reduction, which helps hotels protect guests, staff, buildings, brands, and revenues. Contact us for a consultation:  1-833-DATA-444.


Sources and further reading:

Tampa man pleads guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS,” US Department of Justice, 24 February 2023.

Thwarted terrorist attack in Tampa planned by ISIS member: FBI,” Patch, 24 February 2023.

Temple Terrace officers cleared in shooting of woman who pulled knife,” Tampa Bay Times, 21 July 2020.

San Bernardino shooting: What we know so far,” BBC, 11 December 2015.

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