Two California men tried for plotting to join ISIS

An Islamic State militant waving a flag in Raqqa in 2014.
An Islamic State militant waving a flag in Raqqa in 2014.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Two California men went on trial on Wednesday (June 8) on charges of conspiring to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group for which they allegedly hoped to die as martyrs.

Nader Elhuzayel and Muhanad Badawi, both 25 and from Anaheim, were arrested in May of last year by federal agents when Elhuzayel attempted to board a plane in Los Angeles to travel to Turkey to join the terror network, authorities say.

In her opening statement, federal prosecutor Deirdre Eliot told jurors that the two men were obsessed with Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria and shared photos on social media of beheadings of "unbelievers." "You'll see death and destruction are their goals and they are drawn to the fight," the prosecutor said.

Badawi's attorney acknowledged that her client's behaviour may have been "un-American" and "repulsive" but said he did not intend to carry out any attacks.

"My client was a lot of talk and absolutely no action," Kate Corrigan told the court.

She added that Badawi had been duped by Elhuzayel into lending the latter money for the plane ticket to travel overseas and realise his wish to fight for ISIS.

"What this case is about ... is my client trusted a liar - the co-defendant," Corrigan said.

Elhuzayel's attorney for his part called for the charges against his client to be dropped, arguing that at the time of Ehuzayel's arrest, the ISIS was not yet considered a terrorist organisation by the United states.

"If they're not on the list, then he can't be guilty," Pal Lengyel-Leahu said, adding that Elhuzayel's postings on social media were nothing more than "cheerleading" and were protected under free speech.

He told AFP that his client had purchased a one-way ticket to Israel - with a layover in Turkey - as he planned to get married there.

"We have a lot of disillusioned kids who turn to sex, drugs or alcohol," Lengyel-Leahu said in court. "Nader turned to religion." The trial is expected to last about a month with dozens of witnesses set to testify.

Much of the case against the pair rests on their inflammatory comments on social media, which drew the attention of federal agents.

The two men are charged with conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State and other charges involving bank fraud and financial aid fraud.

Ehuzayel faces up to 30 years in prison on each of 25 counts of bank fraud and Badawi faces up to five years in prison on one count of federal financial aid fraud.

The two also face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of providing material support to ISIS.

The case against the pair mirrors similar cases both in the United States and abroad where social media has been instrumental in encouraging young people to join the extremist group.

Experts say most of the recruits are disillusioned and disenfranchised youth with no purpose in life and easy to prey on.

On Tuesday, a 22-year-old California man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for seeking to travel to Syria to join ISIS and wage holy war.