Refugee charged: How social media united – and undid – would-be terrorists

Suspected supporters of Islamic State, Omar Faraj Saeed Al-Hardan and Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, met online through social media. But it was also social media that led to their arrest.

Bob Levey/AP/File
Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan (l.) is escorted by US Marshals from the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse, in Houston on Friday. Mr. Al Hardan, who came to Houston from Iraq in 2009 was arraigned Wednesday on charges he tried to help the Islamic State group.

­­­A Palestinian born in Iraq and accepted by the United States as a refugee is an Islamic State (IS) sympathizer, who planned an attack on American soil, a federal investigator testified in federal court Wednesday.

Omar Faraj Saeed al-Hardan faces allegations by federal investigators that he was buying components on eBay to build two homemade bombs, intended to be detonated in two Houston malls.

Mr. Hardan, 24, pleaded not guilty to the charges of supplying Islamic State with support and lying to US officials. A judge has ordered him held without bail.

Hardan is one of two refugees arrested on suspicions relating of terrorism. Twenty-three-year-old Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab of Sacramento, Calif., was also apprehended last week. According to an FBI affidavit unsealed in Sacramento on Wednesday, the two planned to travel to Syria to join Islamic State.

The two men met online through social media, where much of Islamic State's planning and recruitment takes place. But it was also social media that led to their arrest. Records of their extensive social media correspondence provided law enforcement with a link that led to the charges both are now facing.

Mr. Jayab was trying to encourage Hardan to travel with him to Syria, using social media to tell of his experience fighting against the Syrian government in earlier trips and speaking about martyrdom, authorities say.

"O God, grant us martyrdom for your sake while engaged in fighting and not retreating; a martyrdom that would make you satisfied with us," Jayab wrote to Hardan, according to law enforcement.

Jayab revealed over the correspondence with Hardan that he had already fought in Syria when he was a teen and was trained in how to use weapons available to fighters there. Jayab promised to train Hardan in the weapons and offer guidance on how to be assigned to the right battle in Syria.

"God willing, you will have your chance to shoot," he added in a later message cited in court documents. "The most shots I made with it in my life was in the biggest battle I participated in. Seven magazines in one breath.... Just shooting, spraying, spraying."

He also recounted to Hardan how he had helped execute three Syrian government soldiers. One of the soldiers was described as so frightened he forgot to unlock the safety on his gun before he was shot.

Authorities say Jayab also fought in Syria in November 2013 and January 2014, after having lied to officials that he was traveling to Turkey to visit his grandmother.

Previously, Jayab had been critical of IS for killing Muslims, but the groups he fought with in Syria later became affiliated with the notorious terrorist group.

The fact that Jayab had sought asylum as a refugee fleeing violence in Syria has reignited concerns over the United States resettlement program, sparked by the November terrorist attacks in Paris.

At the time of their arrest, prosecutors said that the neither Jayab or Hardan posed any imminent threat of staging a domestic terror attack.

US Attorney Benjamin Wagner said that while Jayab "represented a potential safety threat, there is no indication that he planned any acts of terrorism in this country."

The allegations against Hardan of attempting to construct homemade bombs to be used in Houston malls are new developments.

Three other arrests were linked to the correspondence, but did not relate to national security, prosecutors say.

Two of Jayab's brothers and a cousin were arrested over links to stolen cellphones. A third relative, Samer Mohammed al-Jayab, was arrested in California.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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