An Iraqi refugee who was arrested in Houston last week for attempting to support the Islamic State (IS) was plotting to bomb two malls in the area, federal testimony alleges.
Omar Faraj Saeed al-Hardan arrived in the Houston area in 2009 and received legal permanent residence status in 2011. Mr. Hardan is charged with procurement of citizenship or naturalization unlawfully, attempting to provide material support to IS, and making false statements, according to the US Department of Justice. The charges carry maximum penalties of 25, 20, and eight years, respectively. Hardan pleaded not guilty to all charges in court Wednesday.
Prosecutors say Hardan wanted to set off bombs at the Galleria and PlazAmericas malls in Houston and was learning to make detonators using cellphones. A Homeland Security agent testified that several of the phones along with an IS flag and notes regarding jihad were found in Hardan’s apartment.
"He wanted to build them (the transmitters) for ISIL...So he could kill people," Homeland Security Special Agent Herman Wittliff said in court, according to the Associated Press.
Wittliff also read from a transcript of a 2014 conversation between Hardan and his wife, in which he expressed his opposition to America and desire to become a martyr.
"I will go to Syria. I am not wacko. I am not wacko. I am speaking the truth. I want to blow myself up. I want to blow myself up ... I am against America," Hardan said, per Wittliff’s reading.
Hardan’s brother, Saeed Faraj Saeed al-Hardan, said that no one in his family had pledged support to IS and noted that Omar denied any wrongdoing.
“Nobody likes ISIS at all. Nobody supports ISIS at all,” Saeed told the AP last week. “ISIS is no good. ISIS is not Muslim.”
Hardan’s arrest coincided with that of Iraqi-born Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, who was arrested last week in California on charges that he lied about his travel to Syria, where he allegedly fought with a group later associated with IS. Prosecutors say that Hardan and Jayab were in contact via Facebook throughout 2013 and 2014 and planned to train with weapons and eventually travel to Syria to fight with Islamic militants. Jayab is jailed in Sacramento, Calif.
The two arrests come as the US refugee policy remains under scrutiny, and they prompted prominent Texas politicians to call for change. Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz called for retroactive screening of all refugees in the United States, Gov. Greg Abbott is a proponent of shuttering Texas to refugee resettlement, and Texas Rep. Michael McCaul backs a bill that mandates additional screening for refugees.
“While I commend the FBI for their hard work, these arrests heighten my concern that our refugee program is susceptible to exploitation by terrorists,” said McCaul, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, in a statement Friday. “The president has assured us that individuals from Iraq and Syria receive close scrutiny, but it is clearly not enough.”
McCaul introduced the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act last year, which calls for Federal Bureau of Investigation background checks in addition to initial Homeland Security screenings for all “covered aliens”, or refugees with ties to Iraq or Syria. The bill passed 289 to 137 in the House in November.
“We need to act, which is why today I call upon the Senate to take up my bill to overhaul the security vetting of Iraqi and Syrian refugees,” McCaul said. “We cannot delay while more potential jihadists slip through the cracks. Terrorist groups like ISIS have vowed to use these programs to infiltrate the West, and now it is clearer than ever that we should take them at their word.”