On the last Friday of April, after prayer services at a mosque in Orange County, two friends spoke on the phone.
It was not a light-hearted conversation.
They spoke enthusiastically about Islamic State, the brutal extremist group fighting to take control of lands in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
One proclaimed his wish to join the group and die a martyr on a battlefield. Although Yemen was attractive for its natural beauty, the men agreed they’d prefer to fight in Syria. They would drink wine together in the paradise that awaited them after they were killed, they said.
Unbeknown to the men, they were not alone on the call. Federal agents were listening.
Details of the phone call were contained in an FBI agent’s affidavit that was part of a criminal complaint filed Friday against Nader Elhuzayel and Muhanad Badawi, both 24. In the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Orange County, prosecutors accused the men of “conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”
Federal authorities said the men drew the attention of counter-terrorism agents with inflammatory comments on social media, prompting an investigation that came to a head with their arrests Thursday.
The case mirrors those of six Somali Americans arrested last month in San Diego and Minneapolis. The men are accused of trying to travel to Syria and join Islamic State. Similar cases have been more common in Britain, France and other western European countries with large populations of young, disaffected Muslim men.
Elhuzayel and Badawi are accused of setting in motion a plan for Elhuzayel to travel to the Middle East and realize his wish to fight for Islamic State.
Agents from a counter-terrorism task force intercepted Elhuzayel at Los Angeles International Airport before he boarded a plane bound for Turkey on Thursday afternoon. Badawi, who is accused of purchasing Elhuzayel’s plane ticket, was taken into custody at an Anaheim gas station, an FBI spokeswoman said.
At a court hearing Friday afternoon, Elhuzayel and Badawi, both shackled, appeared in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert N. Block. Neither was asked to enter a plea.
Elhuzayel was born in the U.S. after his parents moved to Orange County 40 years ago, according to family members and authorities. The fifth of six children, he appeared calm in court as his parents and older brother watched in silence.
“My son is not the man these people say he is. He is a good child and a good brother,” said Salem Elhuzayel, his father, before Block read the charges.
Kate Corrigan, a court-appointed lawyer representing Badawi, said her client was innocent. She described him as “very young for his age” and “immature.”
“There’s no indication that he had any intention of leaving the country,” Corrigan said, adding her client could be “someone who’s misunderstood, perhaps a college student who got caught up in a conversation he shouldn’t have.”
Badawi emigrated with his family from Sudan to California eight years ago, Corrigan said.
Both men were being held without bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 5.
Agents began monitoring the men in January 2013, said David Thorp, acting head of the FBI’s Orange County office. The court filings show scrutiny of the men intensified in April and May as agents eavesdropped on their phone calls and surveillance teams tracked their movements.
On May 7, agents watched the men as they sat together in Badawi’s car, according to the affidavit. 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 Istanbul and then on to Tel Aviv, the affidavit alleged.
In a phone call with Badawi, Elhuzayel discussed vague plans to visit Palestinian relatives in the West Bank before finding a way to cross the border into Egypt in the hope of making his way to a battlefield, according to the affidavit.
Although the men talked about their hope to reunite someday as fighters, they did not discuss any travel plans for Badawi. However, because he is believed to have paid for Elhuzayel’s ticket, he too is criminally culpable, federal authorities argued in the filings.
Elhuzayel’s mother dismissed the allegations against her son as “impossible.” Speaking on the phone before his court appearance, Falak Elhuzayel described her son as “a very good kid — not the kind of person who would fit into this kind of category.”
She said she and her husband dropped their son off at LAX on Thursday and confirmed he was preparing to board a flight to Istanbul and continue on to Israel. The family, she said, is Palestinian and her son was traveling to visit relatives in the West Bank.
In the early evening, federal agents raided the room at the Crystal Inn motel in Anaheim where Nader Elhuzayel has lived with his parents since the family declared bankruptcy and lost their house two years ago.
Falak Elhuzayel said a team of agents upended the room in the search for evidence and asked her why her son had purchased a one-way ticket. She said she told them that he had decided to buy a return ticket later because he did not know how long he would remain in the West Bank.
She described her son as “Muslim, but not very religious, just normal.” Over the last year, he had become more observant, frequently attending Friday prayer services at a mosque in Anaheim, she said. But she insisted the notion that he could have slipped into the realm of extremism was not possible.
He was, she said, “a simple, gullible, nice kid.”