A man who came to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee was arrested in Sacramento on Thursday on suspicion of lying about fighting alongside terrorist organizations in Syria, federal authorities said.
On the same day, federal authorities in Houston announced that an Iraqi refugee in Texas, who had been communicating online with the man in California, was charged with attempting to provide support to the militant group Islamic State.
The allegations against two men residing in the U.S. with links to foreign terrorist groups comes as the nation reels from the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino, which left 14 dead. That is considered the deadliest terrorist act on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
And the arrests of two refugees from Iraq, part of a wave of about 103,000 Iraqi refugees admitted from 2006 to 2014, is likely to add fuel to the debate over whether the U.S. should welcome refugees from Syria, and if so, whether the screening process is adequate.
The man living in Sacramento, Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, 23, had reported in private messages on social media that he fought alongside various groups in Syria, including Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni terrorist group and an affiliate of Al Qaeda, according to a federal complaint filed Wednesday and unsealed Thursday.
Al-Jayab, a Palestinian who was born in Iraq and first arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in October 2012, had begun communicating extensively with people in the Middle East before departing for Turkey and crossing over into Syria in November 2013, according to the complaint.
He returned to the U.S. on Jan. 23, 2014, and settled in Sacramento.
"While he represented a potential safety threat, there is no indication that he planned any acts of terrorism in this country," U.S. Atty. Benjamin Wagner said in a statement announcing the charges.
But during an interview with federal immigration authorities, Al-Jayab denied being affiliated with any rebel or terrorist group. Of his travels to the Middle East, he said only that he was visiting his grandmother in Turkey, according to the complaint. No mention was made of his alleged time in Syria.
Online, Al-Jayab appeared to be more candid about his alleged activities abroad.
According to social media accounts reviewed by investigators, he told several people that he was in Aleppo, Syria, and gave out a Syrian phone number, the complaint said.
He told a person in Indonesia that he joined Ansar al-Islam and detailed a "joint action" among his and other Sunni extremist groups opposing the Syrian government.
"I came to Syria.... I fight alongside," he wrote, according to court papers.
Still, he expressed fears about punishment by the U.S. In a message to an unidentified person, he wrote that "the government is alert for everything, [and] my trip here constitutes a charge."
When he left Syria, he wrote that he was disturbed by the infighting among Islamic extremist groups. He vowed to return "when the seditious acts are over," he wrote, according to the complaint.
In the months leading up to his departure for Syria, Al-Jayab communicated with a man in Texas identified in court papers as "Individual I."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of California said the unnamed person was Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, who was taken into custody by federal authorities.
Al Hardan, 24, was charged with one count each of attempting to provide support to a foreign terrorist group, unlawfully procuring citizenship or naturalization by not mentioning his alleged ties to terror groups, and lying to federal authorities about his weapons training, an indictment unsealed Thursday said.
Al Hardan, who entered the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee in November 2009 and became a permanent resident in 2011, is accused of offering support to Islamic State, according to the indictment.
In spring 2013, Al Hardan allegedly wrote to Al-Jayab, asking, "Do you know that I have never sprayed fire with a Kalashnikov?" — a type of Russian assault rifle.
Al-Jayab responded, "God willing, you will have your chance to shoot."
Each man is scheduled to appear before a federal judge Friday. If convicted of the charge of providing support to terrorists, Al Hardan faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Al-Jayab faces up to eight years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
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