Federal trial begins: Anaheim men accused of supporting ISIS, terrorism
SANTA ANA – With a plane ticket to Turkey in his hands, $1,000 in cash in his bags and a collection of graphic Islamic State propaganda in his phone, the Anaheim man was stopped by FBI agents before he realized his dream of becoming a terrorist, a U.S. attorney told a federal jury on Wednesday.
A year after the high-profile arrest at a security gate at Los Angeles International Airport, trial began Wednesday for Nader Salem Elhuzayel, accused of trying to join the Islamic State, and friend Muhanad Badawi, an Anaheim resident suspected of bankrolling the journey.
Attorneys for the men, both 25, made no attempt to soften the often harsh rhetoric that Badawi and Elhuzayel espoused online against the United States. But they said that such opinions, controversial or not, aren’t enough to designate someone as a would-be terrorist.
Prosecutors during opening statements at the U.S. District Courthouse in Santa Ana said that Elhuzayel and Badawi spent the months leading up to the airport arrest both publicly and privately backing the Islamic State on social media platforms.
Both men listened intently, their eyes and heads downcast, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Deirdre Eliot said how the two made a pact to “fight on the front lines” on behalf of the Islamic State.
“Death and destruction is their goal, and the defendants are drawn to the fight,” Eliot said.
Eliot described to the jury the various atrocities carried out by the Islamic State, including beheadings, kidnappings, suicide bombings and attacks on civilian populations.
The prosecutor said Elhuzayel was the first one to actually attempt to join the group, but added that Badawi planned to eventually meet up as well.
“Pick a side, fence-sitting is for cowards,” the prosecutor quoted Elhuzayel as writing online. “Do you pick the side of the faithful or the nonbelievers.”
Authorities also accused Elhuzayel of depositing stolen checks into his personal checking accounts to fund the trip, while Badawi used his federal financial aid to pay for Elhuzayel’s $671 plane ticket.
Attorneys for Elhuzayel and Badawi told the jury that neither took part in actual violence and noted that political speech, even if unpopular, is not illegal.
“There is no evidence of either defendant committing any acts of terrorism,” said Pal Lengyel-Leahu, who is representing Elhuzayel. “It is not illegal to pick a side, whether or not any of us agree with it.”
Lengyel-Leahu said that the Islamic State itself wasn’t designated as a terrorist organization at the time of his client’s arrests, a status the attorney added wasn’t changed until months later.
“There was a gap in the law, and they know it,” Lengyel-Leahu said of the prosecutors. “No law can go back and make illegal what you did in the past.”
Rather than trying to meet up with the Islamic State, Lengyel-Leahu said, Elhuzayel was actually traveling to Israel in order to marry a woman he had met online.
“He had no plan, nor did he have any intention, of joining any organization, other than getting married,” Lengyel-Leahu said. “We have a lot of disillusioned kids in America. They turn to sex, drugs, alcohol. Nader turned to religion.”
Kate Corrigan, Badawi’s attorney, disagreed with Lengyel-Leahu’s argument that Islamic State wasn’t a designated terrorist group.
Instead, Corrigan said, Badawi “trusted in a liar,” contending that Elhuzayel used Badawi because he was “desperate for cash.”
“It’s a misguided friendship … and it’s full of unpopular thoughts, repulsive thoughts to most of us,” Corrigan said. “My client was a lot of talk and exactly no action.”
Left unanswered in court filings and statements are how the two men were drawn to Islamic State rhetoric.
Elhuzayel, the son of two Palestinian immigrants, lived in a variety of motels in the years leading up to his arrest after his family was evicted in 2013 from their Anaheim home.
Badawi immigrated with his parents from the Sudan at the age of 16. His attorney previously described his family as well-educated; Badawi was studying at Fullerton College at the time of his arrest.
It’s not clear if either attended any Orange County high schools, but the two young men met in 2012, while attending Cypress College. Both had attended worship at the West Coast Islamic Society in Anaheim, although other members of the mosque said the pair didn’t associate with others.
Corrigan described the pair as spending countless hours, day after day, talking online. A running theme, Corrigan said, was the pull between their traditional, conservative backgrounds and the lure of pretty girls and partying.
Elhuzayel apparently stopped visiting a dating website around the same time he began an online relationship with a woman in Palestine, the person he would later tell authorities that he was traveling to marry.
Their families have repeatedly disputed the governments description of Badawi and Elhuzayel as eager, would-be terrorists.
But federal authorities note that in one video, later deleted, Badawi taped Elhuzayel pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State. “I will fight for the sake of Allah, to protect what we believe in,” a prosecutor quoted Elhuzayel as saying in the video.
In a series of court hearings leading up to their trial, Elhuzayel has appeared to be the the more forceful of the pair, at one point referring to some of the charges against him as “ridiculous” as he pleaded not guilty.
The trial is expected to continue for up to six weeks. Along with testimony from FBI agents, jurors are expected to be presented with recorded phone conversations and social media postings and messages between Badawi and Elhuzayel.
Read full article at OCRegister.com
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