SANTA ANA, Calif. – 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 Monday to 30 years in federal prison for conspiring and attempting to provide material support to the terrorist organization, following a probe by the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Nader Elhuzayel, 25 of Anaheim, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter. The sentencing followed Elhuzayel’s conviction in June at the conclusion of a two-week trial that ended with a federal jury returning guilty verdicts against Elhuzayel and his co-defendant Muhanad Badawi. 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.
In sentencing Elhuzayel, Judge Carter said, “There’s no remorse, no repudiation of ISIL, only death and destruction.” The judge also noted that the fact the defendant made repeated calls for martyrdom “makes [him] especially dangerous.” In addition to the 360-month sentence, Judge Carter ordered that Elhuzayel be subject to supervised release for life.
“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 U.S. 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 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 Oct. 21, 2014, defendant Badawi made a video of defendant Elhuzayel swearing allegiance to the leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the video, Elhuzayel pledged to travel to join ISIL 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 shootings. On May 7, 2015, four days after the attack, Elhuzayel and Badawi made travel arrangements and purchased Elhuzayel’s plane ticket to join ISIL.
Both men were arrested May 21, 2015, as Elhuzayel attempted to board a plane at Los Angeles International Airport to travel to Turkey. 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 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 without bond since their arrests. Badawi’s sentencing is set for Oct. 17, at which time he faces a statutory maximum sentence of 35 years in federal prison.
The investigation was conducted by the JTTF in Orange County, which includes the FBI; HSI; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the U.S. Secret Service; the Internal Revenue Service - Criminal Investigation; the Naval Criminal Investigative Service; the California Highway Patrol; the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center; the Anaheim, Orange and Irvine police departments; and the Orange County Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory. The Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General provided significant assistance in the investigation and at trial.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. 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.