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Two O.C. men convicted of conspiring to fight with Islamic State

A federal jury in Santa Ana convicted two men of conspiring to help Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, with one of the men trying to board a plane to the Middle East.

Nader Elhuzayel, 25, and Muhanad Badawi, 24, both residents of Anaheim, were convicted after a two-week trial that detailed their efforts to join the terrorist group, including their recorded pledges to "fight for the cause of Allah and to die in the battlefield," according to court papers.

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The jury deliberated for just over an hour before handing down the verdict.

Elhuzayel was found guilty of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State, and Badawi was convicted of aiding and abetting the attempt to provide material support, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles.

“These convictions are a message to those who aim to travel to take up arms with (Islamic State) and to those who support them — the FBI and our partners are determined to thwart your efforts,” said Assistant Director in Charge Deidre Fike, head of the FBI’s office in L.A.

But Kate Corrigan, an attorney representing Badawi, said the case was shrouded in secrecy and showed the extremes of government surveillance, with federal agents placing three listening devices in his family's cars. She said she could never see the warrants for the listening devices, which were filed in the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The case demonstrated that "the government is listening and you better be careful what you say," Corrigan said.

The duo were arrested May 21, 2015. Agents from a counter-terrorism task force intercepted and detained Elhuzayel at Los Angeles International Airport before he boarded a plane bound for Israel with a layover in Turkey. Badawi was arrested at an Anaheim gas station.

Agents began monitoring the men after seeing their inflammatory comments on social media. But the scrutiny of the men intensified in April and May 2015 as agents eavesdropped on their phone calls and surveillance teams tracked their movements.

On May 7, 2015, investigators watched the men as they sat together in Badawi's car, according to an FBI agent's affidavit filed in federal court. Later, a review of airline records showed that while they were in the car, Badawi's debit card was used to purchase a one-way ticket for Elhuzayel to fly from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.

These convictions are a message to those who aim to travel to take up arms with (Islamic State) and to those who support them... .


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U.S. Atty. Eileen Decker said there is a clear line between those who express support verbally and act upon it: "There is a difference between speech and action. These men took action," she said.

During the trial, jurors heard evidence that Badawi encouraged others to support the Islamic State and "participate in violent jihad," Fike said.

Among the evidence presented was that Badawi and Elhuzayel used social media to discuss the Islamic State and terrorist attacks, including their desire to die as martyrs. In recorded conversations, the duo explained "how it would be a blessing to fight for the cause of Allah."

On Badawi's Facebook account, he declared his intent to join the fight and support violence against non-Muslims while Elhuzayel's Facebook account displayed the Islamic State flag as his profile picture. Badawi made a video of Elhuzayel swearing his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, and vowed to travel to Syria to fight.

But Corrigan, the lawyer for Badawi, said her client essentially bought an airline ticket for a friend who lacked access to a credit or debit card. And she said the government's case showed its limits at trial: "They were only able to say he might go to Syria," Corrigan added.

Elhuzayel was also found guilty of 26 counts of bank fraud, and Badawi was convicted of one count of federal financial-aid fraud — crimes that arose from the pair's support for the terror group.

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Elhuzayel got cash through a scheme to defraud three different banks where he had deposited stolen checks into his personal checking accounts, then withdrew money at Orange County branch offices and ATMs. Badawi was convicted of using his federal financial aid to buy the plane ticket for Elhuzayel.

The government's case against the pair mirrors many across the country in which potential foreign fighters are accused of trying to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State. Similar cases have been more common in Britain, France and other western European countries with larger populations of young, disaffected Muslim men.

In a prior interview, Elhuzayel's mother, Falak, described her son as "a very good kid — not the kind of person who would fit into this kind of category." The family, she said, is Palestinian and her son was traveling to visit relatives in the West Bank.

She had described her son as "Muslim, but not very religious, just normal." She had said that her son had become more observant of his religion, including increased attendance at an Anaheim mosque. But she insisted it was impossible that he'd slipped into extremism. He was, she said, "a simple, gullible, nice kid."

Elhuzayel could face up to 30 years in prison on each bank fraud count, while Badawi faces up to five years in prison on the financial-aid fraud count. Both men each face up to 15 years in prison on each material support count.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is slated to sentence Elhuzayel on Sept. 19 and Badawi on Sept. 26.

Twitter: @LAcrimes

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UPDATES:

10:24 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from attorney Kate Corrigan.

This article was originally published at 6:47 p.m.

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