Teen accused of providing gift cards to help support terrorist group

Paul Ventura, left, father of 18-year-old Mateo Ventura, both of Wakefield, Mass., displays a photograph on his cell phone that shows what he describes as a photo of himself and his son Mateo, right, while speaking with reporters outside federal court, Thursday, June 8, 2023, in Worcester, Mass. Mateo Ventura appeared in federal court Thursday on a charge of knowingly concealing the source of material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, the U.S. attorney's office in Boston said in a statement. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — An 18-year-old Massachusetts man sent gift cards worth a total of $1,670 to someone he thought was a supporter of the Islamic State group that he intended to be used to fund a war on nonbelievers, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Mateo Ventura, of Wakefield, was held pending a bail hearing next Wednesday during an initial appearance Thursday in U.S. District Court in Worcester. He is charged with knowingly concealing the source of material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said in a statement.

An email seeking comment was left with Ventura’s federal public defender.

His father, Paul Ventura, said outside of court that his son has learning and developmental issues and is being “railroaded” by federal authorities.

“My son said, ‘Dad, I don’t understand, I didn’t do anything wrong,'” when the FBI came to the door and arrested him Thursday morning, Paul Ventura said.

Ventura wanted the gift cards to be sold on the dark web for slightly less than face value with the resulting proceeds to be used to support the Islamic State group, prosecutors said.

Between August 2020 and August 2021, Ventura provided about 25 cards with a total face value of $965 to someone he thought was an Islamic State group sympathizer but was actually an undercover FBI agent, according to an FBI affidavit included in court documents. Ventura was still a juvenile at the time.

He provided another $705 in gift cards between January and May after turning 18, authorities said.

The cards ranged in value from $10 to $100. Most were from the Google Play Store, but some were from GameStop, Amazon and even Dick’s Sporting Goods, according to federal authorities.

Ventura, using an online encrypted messaging application, also expressed a desire to travel overseas and fight with the Islamic State group, according to the affidavit. He even went so far as to buy an airline ticket to Cairo in April, but he never departed and he did not reschedule or cancel his flight, the affidavit says.

The encrypted messaging application used by Ventura has become one of the Islamic State group’s “primary communication tools, and is used by its adherents and supporters … to communicate their support for ISIS and to plan attacks,” the affidavit said.

On one occasion, Ventura sent an audio file to the undercover agent pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State caliphate, according to documents.

Ventura also contacted the FBI and offered to disclose information about future terror attacks in exchange for $10 million, according to the affidavit, which includes multiple text exchanges with the undercover agent that are filled with Arabic words.

If convicted, Ventura faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.