Two Anaheim men who prosecutors say dreamed of joining the Islamic State were convicted Tuesday of conspiring to aid the foreign terrorist group after the jury deliberated for just over an hour.
As the verdicts were read, their family members sobbed.
Nader Salem Elhuzayel gazed down at his folded hands and sucked on his upper lip, then mouthed, “Don’t cry,” in the direction of his mother. Muhanad Badawi fidgeted in his seat and stroked his face.
Elhuzayel’s and Badawi’s mothers quickly left the Santa Ana federal courthouse after the verdicts, unable to hold back tears.
Outside the courtroom, prosecutors and federal investigators smiled and offered one another congratulations.
“These convictions are a message to those who aim to travel to take up arms with (the Islamic State) and to those who support them: The FBI and our partners are determined to thwart your efforts,” said Deirdre Fike, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, in a statement.
“This is a reminder that our work is not done, and the public must remain steadfast and report suspicious behavior, whether that behavior is carried out in person or online,” she said.
During the two-week trial, attorneys for Elhuzayel and Badawi, both 25, did not dispute or try to soften the harsh, often violent and graphic rhetoric and images that the pair shared in numerous online postings and recorded conversations. Much of the material, which included what prosecutors described as “cheerleading” for Islamic State atrocities, was presented to the jury.
Among the evidence against the men was a video, later deleted, that Badawi made of Elhuzayel pledging allegiance to the leader of Islamic State and announcing his plans to travel to Syria to become a fighter for the terrorist group.
It isn’t clear how the two ended up on the radar of federal agents. But based on courtroom testimony, a team of agents appeared to have conducted surveillance on Elhuzayel for at least a month before he was taken into custody on May 21, 2015, at a security counter at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was trying to board a flight bound for Israel with a layover in Turkey.
Badawi was arrested that same day on his way to a college exam.
Elhuzayel told federal agents that he was traveling to Tel Aviv to marry a Palestinian woman he had met online. Badawi also told investigators that he believed Elhuzayel was traveling to get married.
Federal investigators were unconvinced, pointing to social media postings in which the pair discussed dying as martyrs.
In the lead-up to the flight, Elhuzayel apparently tried to finance his efforts by running a bank-fraud scheme in which he would deposit stolen checks and then immediately withdraw cash from his accounts. Prosecutors say that as banks got wise to the fraud, they shut down the accounts, complicating Elhuzayel’s efforts to purchase a plane ticket.
Badawi helped Elhuzayel out, using a debit card tied to his federal financial aid to buy the plane ticket online.
“A call went out from Baghdad,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Deirdre Eliot told the jury during closing arguments on Monday, referring to a request for foreign fighters by Islamic State leadership. “The defendants heard that call. Badawi facilitated; Elhuzayel was to join the fight.”
Attorneys for the two men both described their online talk as offensive but protected free speech. They also argued that Badawi and Elhuzayel had no training, did not speak Arabic and didn’t appear to have any direct Islamic State contacts overseas.
Otherwise, the defense attorneys were at odds during the trial.
Pal Lengyel-Leahu, Elhuzayel’s attorney, argued that the Islamic State wasn’t designated a terrorist organization at the time of his client’s arrest. The attorney indicated after the verdict that he plans to bring that argument up again on appeal.
“A snap verdict means they really didn’t grapple with the issues as we presented them,” Lengyel-Leahu said of the jurors.
Kate Corrigan, Badawi’s attorney, blamed her client’s legal trouble on Elhuzayel, whom she described as a liar.
“This case, if nothing else, should be a clear signal for our young people not to communicate anything online they couldn’t stand by in a courtroom,” Corrigan added. “If you can’t deliver on what you say, don’t say it.”
Never answered during the trial was why Elhuzayel, the son of Palestinian immigrants, and Badawi, who with his family fled from Sudan at age 16, turned to Islamic State rhetoric.
The two met at Cypress College in 2012. They attended worship at the West Coast Islamic Society in Anaheim, although other members of the mosque said they didn’t associate with others.
They apparently spent countless hours online, discussing everything from current events to the pull between their traditional, conservative backgrounds and the lure of pretty girls and partying.
One female juror was dismissed from Badawi and Elhuzayel’s trial after this month’s Orlando shooting, in which a man who pledged allegiance to Islamic State killed 49 people. The juror told the judge and the attorneys that she could no longer be fair toward the defendants.
After the verdicts, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who presided over the trial, expressed concern for Badawi’s mental and physical well-being. In the lead-up to the trial, Badawi went on a hunger strike, his weight dropping from 140-plus pounds to little more than 100. Jail medical officials had to force-feed Badawi to get his weight back up.
“Please keep yourself healthy,” Carter urged Badawi.
Both Elhuzayel and Badawi were convicted of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group. Elhuzayel was also convicted of attempting to provide material support for a terrorist group and 26 counts of bank fraud. Badawi was convicted of aiding and abetting Elhuzayel’s attempt to support the Islamic State, as well as federal financial aid fraud.
Badawi, who faces up to 35 years behind bars, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 26. Elhuzayel, who could serve decades more in federal prison, is scheduled to be sentenced a week earlier.
According to the House of Representative’s Committee on Homeland Security, since the Sept. 11 attacks there have been at least 50 arrests nationwide of individuals accused of joining or attempting to join the Islamic State.
That includes Adam Dandach, an Orange resident who was arrested at John Wayne Airport in July 2014 while trying to board a flight to Turkey. Dandach has pleaded guilty to providing material support to Islamic State and awaits sentencing.
Another Orange County man, Garden Grove resident Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, admitted in 2013 to trying to help another terrorist organization, al-Qaida.