SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Two California men arrested by the FBI aspired to join the Islamic State group and bought a plane ticket for one of them to travel to Turkey with the hope of becoming a martyr, federal prosecutors said Friday.
The U.S. attorney’s office charged 24-year-olds Nader Elhuzayel and Muhanad Badawi with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group.
On Friday, both men appeared in shackles in a packed federal courtroom in Santa Ana. Elhuzayel, who looked down during much of the proceedings, was arrested late Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport and will return for a detention hearing Wednesday. His family and lawyer declined to comment after the hearing.
Badawi, who appeared to listen intently to the judge, was held without bail, though his attorney said she may seek his release with restrictions to ensure he attends court. He was taken into custody late Thursday near his home in Anaheim, where both men live, authorities said.
The FBI said in a court affidavit that the two men shared their support for the Islamic State on social media and in conversation, saying it would be a blessing to join the fight and die on the battlefield.
In April, Badawi let Elhuzayel use his debit card to buy a one-way Tel Aviv, Israel-bound plane ticket with a six-hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey, the document said.
Elhuzayel had met a Palestinian woman on the Internet he planned to marry who also supported the Islamic State group. Badawi told another man about Elhuzayel’s plan, saying “I’m gonna join soon. I don’t know how soon, but I will go,” the affidavit said.
After his arrest, Elhuzayel told authorities he was planning on getting off the plane in Turkey and traveling to fight with the Islamic State, according to the court filing.
If convicted, each man could face a maximum sentence of 15 years, prosecutors said.
Kate Corrigan, Badawi’s lawyer, said her client was young, somewhat immature and scared at the prospect of a potentially long prison sentence. He came to the United States with his family eight years ago from Sudan and is studying engineering at Fullerton College, she said.
“There’s no indication he had any intention of him going to any other country,” Corrigan said, adding that she will seek community support for his release. “I’m looking forward to sorting out whether what the government claims it has can be backed up.”
While Elhuzayel’s father declined to comment after court, he previously told the Orange County Register (http://bit.ly/1ITCN9B) that he had dropped off his son at the airport late Thursday so he could visit Palestinian aunts and cousins.
“I think they’re looking for a victim,” the elder Salem Elhuzayel said. “He’s an innocent human being.”
FBI and SWAT officials searched the family’s Anaheim motel room, where they have been living since they were evicted from their home, Salem Elhuzayel said. Authorities also searched Badawi’s home.
Badawi’s sister and brother declined to comment on the allegations.
The arrests in the suburban Southern Californian county trail two other recent cases involving young people accused of trying to aid terrorist groups overseas. Last year, Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen was sentenced to 13 years after pleading guilty to a federal terrorism charge and admitting he attempted to assist al-Qaida by providing weapons training.
Earlier this year, 21-year-old Adam Dandach was charged with trying to support the Islamic State group. He has pleaded not guilty.