Feds indict Iraqi man on charges of leaving hoax bombs at churches in California, Arizona

A Sacramento federal grand jury has indicted an Iraqi man living in Phoenix after he allegedly left hoax backpack bombs at a church in Roseville and another in Arizona, and attempted to leave others at churches in Southern California and Colorado, officials say.

Zimnako Salah, 44, was indicted on a single count of false information and hoaxes following a months-long FBI investigation that tracked his movements from Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California, court records say.

The investigation turned up materials that could be used for manufacturing hoax devices and bombs, court records say, as well as antisemitic writings.

Salah, a mechanic who has claimed to have been a U.S. Army interpreter and has been described as having mental issues, is accused of leaving a backpack attached to a toilet inside a Roseville Christian church on Nov. 12, forcing the evacuation of the building.

“Evidence indicates that Salah intended to convey that the backpack contained a bomb,” U.S. Attorney Phil Talbert’s office said in a statement.

The backpack later was found to contain a pillow after a church volunteer removed the backpack from the bathroom and walked it outside, court documents say.

“Church Volunteer recalled thinking she ‘might meet Jesus today’ before handling the backpack,” according to court papers, which do not name any of the churches involved.

Salah is also accused of leaving a backpack inside an Arizona church in September and attempting to do the same at churches in La Mesa, near San Diego, in October and Colorado in November.

Court documents do not indicate a motive for Salah’s alleged actions but note that he has been critical of U.S. foreign policies in discussions with others.

Last fall, the purchasers of a home in Phoenix where Salah had been living had an interaction with him as one of the buyers was wearing a hat with an American flag on it, court papers say.

“Salah commented on the hat and said that the USA was bad,” court papers say, adding that the home buyer “challenged Salah on this comment and told Salah that you live in this country; why do you hate it?”

“Salah responded and said, ‘F--- this country,’ and this country went over and killed many Iraqis,” court documents say.

Salah also has been detained twice by law enforcement in November and found to be in possession of a 9 mm handgun, court papers say, once in Texas in November where he was fined and released and days later in San Diego, where he was arrested and ordered held without bail.

Court papers say Salah switched license plates on his vehicles as he traveled throughout the West, and searches of his property and rented storage units turned up “stored component parts for a destructive device or a hoax device, such as a propane canister with wires taped to it, and strips of duct tape lined with nails.”

One storage unit also had “an antisemitic statement” painted on the wall “in Kurdish along with a reference to the Prophet Muhammad,” court papers say.

The incident at the Roseville church began Nov. 11, when a 2008 Toyota Prius registered to Salah was seen in the parking lot of the church and then left, court papers say.

The next day, a Sunday, at 9:40 a.m. Salah was seen as he “approached a side entrance of the church, poked his head through the door, and then entered the church from that side entrance with a backpack,” court papers say.

“Once inside, he looked behind himself and then walked directly to the men’s bathroom,” court papers say. “He was in the bathroom for approximately 35-40 seconds and exited the bathroom without the backpack.

“He immediately left the church through the same side entrance. At one point as he was leaving the church, he jogged. Salah arrived during the 9:00 a.m. service, so there were no witnesses to his activity in the lobby.”

When church officials spotted the backpack, which was affixed to the seat of a toilet, they photographed it and called 911, then cordoned off an area near the restroom and began evacuating special needs students from a classroom next to the bathroom, court papers say.

Police did not arrive immediately, and officials called 911 again.

“They called 911 again to ask if they should evacuate the church and surrounding church buildings,” court papers say. “The 911 dispatcher told them that they were dealing with multiple calls, and that the church’s call would be handled in the order it was received.”

An FBI affidavit recounts how unnamed church officials later described how they responded to the delay.

“Church Employee 1 stated that he then made the ill-advised decision to attempt to figure out what was in the suspicious backpack. Church Employee 1 and Church Volunteer found a first aid person, gathered in the church food preparation area, said a prayer, put gloves on, and Church Volunteer took the lead and they slowly made their way to the restroom and the suspicious backpack.

“Church Volunteer unstrapped the backpack from the toilet pipes and moved it outside and away from the main church building. Church Volunteer discovered a pillow inside of the backpack. Church Volunteer took the pillow and backpack and placed them in a church dumpster.

“They called 911 a third time and explained that a pillow had been found inside the backpack and that the situation was mitigated.”

A December search of Salah’s Phoenix home turned up evidence of destroyed license plates, a cut-up hat and signs that he was “attempting to hide/destroy evidence involving his hoax activities at the Christian churches,” the FBI affidavit says. “In addition, the black hat that was cut up also appeared to have a short bill that resembled the same black hat worn in the Roseville, California, church incident.”

The search also turned up sermon notes from a Christian church in La Mesa, where officials described encountering a “suspicious individual” with a backpack in October who left in a Pruis with Arizona license plates, court papers say.

Salah also visited churches in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and Scottsdale, Arizona, where he “participated in a hoax or hoax-like suspicious activities,” court papers say, including leaving a backpack inside the sanctuary of the Scottsdale church.

“Between September 24, 2023, and his arrest in San Diego County on November 28, 2023, Salah visited at least four churches, one in Arizona, two in California, and one in Colorado,” court papers say. “During each of the trips, Salah visited only briefly and did not attend church services.

“Each time, Salah carried a backpack. At two of the four churches, he placed a backpack in the church and immediately left.”

One family associate later told the FBI that Salah “had a history of making bad decisions, has had run-ins with authorities since a young age, and that he might have some mental instability,” court papers say.

Salah faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.