Two Orange County men were convicted Tuesday of federal charges for attempting to aid the Islamic State terrorist group.
Nader Salem Elhuzayel and Muhanad Elfatih M.A. Badawi — who are both 25 years old — were convicted of conspiring to aid a foreign terrorist organization. Elhuzayel was also convicted of bank fraud while Badawi was convicted of aiding and abetting an attempt to provide support for terrorists, as well as financial aid fraud.
Badawi’s mother cried as the verdicts were announced. She declined comment later.
Jurors deliberated for just over an hour before reaching verdicts this morning.
During the trial, prosecutors characterized the men as obsessively praising Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria on social media as they shared photos of beheadings of “unbelievers.”
Badawi’s attorney, Kate Corrigan, conceded that her client engaged in a great deal of “un-American” and at times “repulsive” speech, but said Badawi “was a lot of talk and absolutely no action.”
She claimed her client was duped by a dishonest Elhuzayel about what he intended to do with money Badawi loaned him.
Elhuzayel’s attorney, meanwhile, argued that his client should be acquitted on the legal technicality that the United States did not recognize the Islamic State as a terrorist organization at the time of the defendant’s arrest.
Elhuzayel used the ISIS flag as his profile picture on a Facebook account, according to prosecutors, who said Badawi in October 2014 made a video of Elhuzayel swearing allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and pledging to travel to Syria to be an ISIS fighter.
In March 2015, Badawi received a $2,865 Pell grant, which prosecutors said he used two months later to purchase a one-way airline ticket for Elhuzayel from Los Angeles International Airport to Tel Aviv, Israel, with a six-hour layover in Istanbul.
Elhuzayel, who operated a scheme to rip off banks by depositing stolen checks into his personal accounts and then withdrawing cash from automated teller machines, was arrested at the airport.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deirdre Eliot told jurors the two would post provocative comments on social media, such as Badawi saying, “Either you’re with (al-Baghdadi) or you’re with Barack Obama.”
Elhuzayel posted at one point, “May God grant us 72 virgins” for martyring themselves, Eliot said.
Elhuzayel’s attorney, Pal Lengyel-Leahu, characterized his client’s social media activity as “cheerleading,” which would be protected free speech “even if it makes you cringe.” He likened it to “picking sides” between the Yankees and Red Sox.
Elhuzayel is an Israeli citizen and was flying there to marry a woman he had met online, Lengyel-Leahu said. His baggage was checked through to Israel, the attorney said.
Lengyel-Leahu told reporters after Tuesday’s verdicts that his client would have run into trouble if he tried to enter the Islamic State with an Israeli citizen’s ID and passport, indicating he was traveling to get married, not aid terrorists.
Badawi’s attorney said his “misguided friendship” led him to give Elhuzayel his Pell Grant money to buy the plane ticket. Badawi, at 6-foot-4 and about 125 pounds, is in no physical shape to be an Islamic State fighter, Corrigan said, joking, ” I could take him.”
Badawi had no idea his friend was allegedly stealing money in the check- cashing scheme, Corrigan said.
Badawi made headlines in December when he lost so much weight while in custody that U.S. District Judge David O. Carter issued an order to force-feed him. At one hearing, Carter even reached into his pocket to buy peanut butter, bread and other groceries for Badawi at a local store so he could have something to eat in court and avoid the force-feeding.
Elhuzayel, who is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 19, could face hundreds of years in prison. Prosecutors have also filed an assets forfeiture action against the defendant, meaning he could have to pay up to $5,000 to the government, his attorney said.
Badawi, who is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 26, faces up to 35 years behind bars.
The mass shooting of 49 victims in Orlando in which the killer called 911 pledging allegiance to the Islamic State prompted Carter to question jurors again about their ability to remain neutral as evidence was being presented. One woman said she could no longer serve on the jury, so she was excused, Corrigan said.
Corrigan said the verdicts should give “a clear signal to all young people” to watch what they say on social media.
“Ultimately, it was their Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, texts and calls that took these young men down,” Corrigan told reporters.
Badawi’s family fled the genocide in Darfur and were “educated, hardworking folks,” Corrigan said, adding her client is “gentle” and soft- spoken and that his friend, Elhuzayel, led him astray.
If Badawi hadn’t have used his Pell grant money to buy the ticket for his friend, he might not have ended up in court, Corrigan said.
“He made a critical error,” she said.
Corrigan characterized Elhuzayel as “stupid” and a “gutless wonder,” and she ridiculed his attorney’s argument that the government had not yet recognized the Islamic State as a terrorist organization.
Badawi faces an even greater threat than prison if he is deported as expected, Corrigan said. She said that could amount to a “death sentence” for her client.
—Staff and wire reports