SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA– An Orange County man who attempted to travel to the Middle East to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was sentenced this afternoon to 30 years in federal prison for conspiring and attempting to provide material support to the terrorist organization.
United States District Judge David O. Carter imposed the sentence on defendant Nader Elhuzayel, 25 of Anaheim, following a two-week federal trial that ended in June when a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against Elhuzayel and co-defendant Muhanad Badawi after deliberating for just over an hour. When imposing sentence, Judge Carter said of Elhuzayel, “There's no remorse, no repudiation of ISIL, only death and destruction.” Judge Carter also commented that the fact that the defendant made repeated calls for martyrdom “makes [him] especially dangerous.” In addition to the 360-month sentence, Judge Carter ordered supervised release for life.
In addition to the terrorism counts, the jury also found Elhuzayel guilty of committing 26 counts of bank fraud and found Badawi guilty of one count of financial aid fraud.
“Today's sentence reflects the gravity of the defendant's plan to betray his country and join a terrorist organization dedicated to the murder of innocent individuals,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “As this case shows, the ability of individuals with the desire to support ISIL to use the Internet and social media to conspire with each other poses a grave threat to our national security. So-called ‘foreign fighters' like this defendant pose a serious danger both overseas and here at home. There can be no doubt that law enforcement's disruption of their plans saved lives, both in the United States and abroad.”
The evidence at trial showed Elhuzayel and Badawi used social media to discuss ISIL and terrorist attacks, expressed a desire to die as martyrs, and made arrangements for Elhuzayel to leave the United States to join ISIL. In recorded conversations, Elhuzayel and Badawi discussed how “it would be a blessing to fight for the cause of Allah, and to die in the battlefield,” and they referred to ISIL as “we.”
The trial evidence also showed that Elhuzayel used social media to communicate with ISIL supporters and operatives, to disseminate pro-ISIL information, and to assist ISIL supporters by distributing social media account information for those whose accounts had been suspended. Elhuzayel maintained a Facebook account with the ISIL flag as his profile picture. He used the account to ask Allah to grant him martyrdom and success in leaving the United States to fight for his cause and to ask Allah to “destroy your enemies and give the Islamic state victory.” Badawi also had a Facebook account, on which he made posts that supported ISIL and violence aimed at non-Muslims, and he indicated that he intended to join the terrorist organization.
According to the trial exhibits, on October 21, 2014, defendant Badawi made a video of defendant Elhuzayel swearing allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the video, Elhuzayel pledged to travel to join ISIS to be a fighter for the organization, according to court documents.
The evidence at trial further showed that, on the day of the May 3, 2015, attack in Garland, Texas, Elhuzayel received social media communications from Elton Simpson, one of the perpetrators of the attack, and that Elhuzayel wrote to Simpson “I love you for the sake of Allah brother may Allah grant you Jannat al ferdaus [the highest level of Paradise reserved for martyrs].” In addition, Elhuzayel received and disseminated social media communications from ISIL operative Abu Hussain al Britani, also known as Junaid Hussain, including communications trumpeting the Garland, Texas, shootings. On May 7, 2015, four days after the Garland shootings, Elhuzayel and Badawi made travel arrangements and purchased Elhuzayel's plane ticket to join ISIL.
Both Elhuzayel and Badawi were arrested on May 21, 2015, as Elhuzayel attempted to board a plane at Los Angeles International Airport to travel to Turkey to join ISIL. Badawi had purchased a one-way ticket on Turkish Airlines for Elhuzayel to travel to Israel, with a layover in Istanbul. In an interview with the FBI, Elhuzayel admitted that he intended to deplane in Turkey and seek contacts to facilitate joining ISIL.
“The defendant pledged allegiance to an avowed enemy of the United States and carried out a significant bank fraud scheme to fund his plans to join the terrorist group, which calls for the murder of Americans” said Deirdre Fike, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Office. “The efforts by the Joint Terrorism Task Force in thwarting this horrible plot cannot be overstated, and I commend federal prosecutors in bringing this defendant to justice.”
Elhuzayel was also convicted of obtaining cash through a scheme to defraud three different banks by depositing stolen checks into his personal checking accounts and then withdrawing cash at branch offices and ATMs in Orange County. The money generated from the bank fraud was intended to finance his travel to Syria to join ISIL.
Both men have been held in federal custody without bond since their arrests.
Judge Carter is scheduled to sentence Badawi on October 17 at which time he will face a statutory maximum sentence of 35 years in federal prison.
The investigation in this case was conducted by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Orange County, which includes the following agencies: the Anaheim Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, the United States Secret Service, IRS – Criminal Investigation, the City of Orange Police Department, the Irvine Police Department, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Orange County Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, the United States Attorney's Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Department of Education's Office of Inspector General provided significant assistance in the investigation and at trial.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Judith A. Heinz and Deirdre Z. Eliot of the Terrorism and Export Crimes Section, and Julius J. Nam of the General Crimes Section, with substantial assistance from Trial Attorney Michael Dittoe of the Justice Department's Counterterrorism Section.
USAO – California, Central Updated September 27, 2016
Central District of California DOJ / 16-225 / September 26, 2016