Counterterrorism

California Terrorism Update

By Nora Ellingsen
Wednesday, June 22, 2016, 12:36 PM

Yesterday in the Central District of California, Muhanad Badawi and Nader Elhuzayel—two men from Anaheimwere convicted by a federal jury of conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. According to the complaint, Elhuzayel re-tweeted Elton Simpson's final tweet, praising Simpson after he was killed during an attack on a conference in Garland, Texas. According to the exhibit list, Badawi also communicated with Junaid Hussain, a notorious ISIL recruiter, via Canadian messaging service Kik.

In addition to those impressive connections, Elhuzayel and Badawi often talked amongst themselves, referring to ISIL as “we,” according to the prosecution. They discussed whether they wanted to go to Syria, Iraq or Yemen, finally settling on Syria, despite considering Yemen’s beautiful landscape. They wanted to go fight, the government alleged, in order to achieve their dream of dying a martyr on the battlefield.

On May 7, 2015, using Badawi’s credit card, Elhuzayel purchased a one-way airline ticket from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, via Istanbul. However, when he attempted to travel on May 21st, he was arrested at the airport, and subsequently admitted to law enforcement that he planned to disembark in Istanbul to join ISIL. Badawi was arrested that same day. A few months later, a federal grand jury in Santa Ana returned a superseding indictment, charging Elhuzayel with 26 counts of bank fraud and Badawi with one count of federal financial aid fraud. The jury also convicted both men on these additional charges.

The trial began on June 8, 2015 when the court heard opening statements. According to the Orange County Register, the prosecution outlined how the two men planned to join ISIL, quoting from Eluzayel’s online posts.

While counsel for Elhuzayel argued that ISIL wasn’t designated as a terrorist organization at the time of arrest, Badawi’s attorney rejected that argument, stating that her client “trusted in a liar” and was taken advantage of by his co-defendant. Elhuzayel, on the other hand, characterized his client as a “disconnected kid,” one who turned to religion instead of the usual “sex, drugs and alcohol.” Even though his client supported ISIL, the defense argued Elhuzayel was actually travelling to Israel in order to marry a woman he met online.

During closing arguments on Monday, the government reiterated their case that the defendants were answering a call from ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to join the fight. Elhuzayel’s lawyer appealed to the jury with a two-piece suit his client packed for his trip overseas, suggesting his client was indeed travelling to his wedding: “Those are not the clothes of the Mujahideen.” Badawi’s attorney, on the other hand, continued to blame Elhuzayel, who conned her client into doing him a favor.

Although expected to last six weeks, the trial concluded after just two. Judge David O. Carter scheduled Elhuzayel’s sentencing hearing for September 19, 2016, and Badawi’s sentencing hearing for September 26, 2016. Both men face a maximum of 15 years in prison on each material support count. Additionally, Elhuzayel will face a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in prison on each bank fraud count and Badawi faces a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison on the financial aid fraud count.

June has been a busy month for prosecutions of would-be terrorists in California. Earlier this month, in a federal district court in the Eastern District of California, Nicholas Michael Teausant was sentenced to 12 years in prison and 25 years supervised release for attempting to provide material support to ISIL, according to the Justice Department’s press release. Teausant was indicted in March 2014, and later pled guilty without a plea agreement.

According to the complaint, on March 17, 2014, Teausant was arrested at the United States-Canadian border as he attempted to depart the United States for Syria. In October 2013, the government alleges that Teausant, a reservist in the U.S. Army National Guard, began meeting with an FBI source after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Teausant confided in the source that he read al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine and was a member of certain radical forums, although he had been scolded by friends for doing so, and was afraid his girlfriend would turn him into the police if she found out.

He was equally active on social media, according to the prosecution, posting not so subtle hashtags on Instagram such as “alqaeda” and “jihadist.” On his ask.fm page, when asked if he were a terrorist he replied, “Lol as if I would tell the truth about that,” but shortly thereafter slipped up and admitted, “I want to go fight in Syria.”

Over the course of five months, the source and Teausant remained in contact. Teausant regularly reiterated his desire to join ISIL with his goal being of “maximum fear and a maximum blow to the U.S. government.” At one point, the prosecution alleges that Teausant told the source he had made plans with some other brothers, but needed to know where he could buy fireworks. In fact, a subsequent FBI analysis of his laptop revealed that he Google searched, “how to build a bomb.” That bomb turned out to be destined for the Los Angeles subway, but he abandoned his plans after news of several FBI arrests spooked him.

On occasion, Teausant discussed his family with the source. After gaining custody of his infant daughter he stated he wanted to bomb his daughter’s daycare because it was a “Zionist reform church.” Later, he discussed killing his “kuffar” mother if she got in the way of his plans.

At some point, Teausant decided instead to exit the country via Canada and began to make preparations. The source offered to put him in touch with his mentor, in reality an undercover law enforcement officer. Teausant and the undercover agent met on several occasions and when the undercover officer asked Teausant if he was sure he wanted to travel, he quipped that the undercover and the source, “really need[ed] to stop asking” that. The men discussed Teausant’s plans to travel to Syria via Canada and on March 15, 2014, Teausant boarded an Amtrak train at in Lodi, California, a midsized town somewhere in between San Francisco and Sacramento. The town is perhaps equally famous for being the zinfandel wine capital of the world and the hometown of Hamid and Umer Hayat, the subjects of the first terrorism trial in California in 2005.

After switching trains and buses and traveling for more than 24 hours, Teausant reached the Canadian border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection performed an outbound border stop on the bus, after which Teausant was removed from the bus and placed under arrest.