Claim:  Three suspicious Middle Eastern men (later found to be likely ISIS operatives) attempted to purchase vehicles in Virginia.


Example: [Collected via e-mail and Facebook, November 2015]

Friend posted this. Seems fake. Just passing it along to be checked.


Beware sellers,

3 muslims tried to buy car from frederick dealer and one of them was identified as know ISIS member per FBI. They did not want to show any ID or do paper work for the car so please screen the people wanting to by your vehicles.

Origins: A series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 understandably intensified extant concerns about the risk posed by ISIS; on 22 November 2015, a Twitter user published an unsourced rumor pertaining to suspicious Middle Eastern men in the area of Frederick:

The tweet contained a screenshot of a (presumably already circulating) text message. Its sender was identified only as “Gianella,” and the text described a purported interaction at a car dealership. The rumor lacked a large number of key details such as the date of the incident, the city in which it occurred, and the name of the dealership in question. (The original tweet appeared to occur on 20 November 2015, and was subsequently deleted after screenshots circulated.) Absent basic information about the claims aside, the rumor didn’t make very much logical sense. According to the individual who sent the text, the three men oddly asserted that they wished to buy a vehicle “whether it passed inspection or not” (apparently unaware of the higher likelihood of such a transaction being private party). Without ostensible reason, the men then informed the dealership they planned only to use the vehicle for two days — a tidbit of information that served only to raise possible red flags obstructing the purchase should the dealer opt not to engage in a sketchy, possibly illegal low-profit transaction. The unnamed dealership’s manager then purportedly dialed 911 in earshot of the suspicious men (rather than surreptitiously), alerting them to the imminent arrival of police and causing them to flee. At this point, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrived and dusted for prints, the results of which appeared to be immediately available, with information disclosed to low-level car dealership employees for unclear reasons. Finally, the FBI opted to inform the car salespeople that the men were in fact likely on a small list of suspected ISIS operatives, despite there being no good reason for federal agents to do so (as it served only to compromise any investigation). The amount of time elapsed between the (still undated) visit and the FBI’s disclosure of this information was also not included in the screenshot. Details in the text message weren’t the only urban legend hallmarks attached to the tale. Just before the 22 November 2015 tweet went locally viral, the claim popped up at separate dealerships in the vicinity of Frederick and Gaithersburg, Virginia (tweets in the conversation cited the “friend of a friend” involved with the original rumor):

That conversation included screenshots of subsequent texts from “Gianella,” who claimed that the men were spotted at a Subaru dealership in Frederick (she believed):

The individual who sent the 20 November 2015 tweet later lamented a lack of action on the part of law enforcement before backpedaling to indicate she was unsure of the rumor’s veracity; the user never explained why she deleted the original warning:

The rumors appeared to stem from social media-driven panics in the wake of the Paris attacks and were spread largely by Twitter users (not party to additional information) in Gaithersburg and Frederick. No one from any of the purportedly affected dealerships officially stepped forward to clarify the claims, nor did any of the rumors make logistical sense from the perspective of a prospective terrorist. Surely, if the plot were rattled at the car dealership level, ISIS operatives would shift to a less-risky private transaction rather than continue flirting with capture. Moreover, there was no reason to suspect that if the FBI believed the men were truly wanted ISIS operatives they wouldn’t take the threat seriously. Similarly, there’s no reason that information about any related information would be released to the public unless an arrest had been made and a plot thwarted.

Last updated: 30 November 2015

Originally published: 30 November 2015