LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — Two Iraqi-born men who came to the United States as refugees have been arrested on terrorism-related charges by federal authorities who allege one traveled to Syria to fight with terrorists in the civil war and the other provided support to the Islamic State group.
There was no evidence either man — one from Texas and the other from California — intended or planned attacks in the United States, but the arrests announced Thursday, little more than a month after the deadly San Bernardino attack, immediately brought new life to a U.S. debate over whether the United States is doing enough to screen refugees from Syria for terrorists from that nation.
Immigration officials say Sacramento – where one of the suspects has called home since 2012 – takes in the third highest number of refugees in California, behind San Diego and Los Angeles.
Sacramento reporter Jason Rojas in Sacramento told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO the arrest could have a big impact on local politics in both Northern and Southern California.
“We have a lot of people talking about is it safe to accept these refugees from these different parts of the country into our county, and so that’s going to be a hot topic this election year,” Rojas said.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas quickly called for a retroactive review of all refugees who have come to the U.S. to examine “all of the evidence that might indicate whether these individuals have ties to radical Islamic terrorists.”
His reaction was echoed by other Texas officials and was likely to be followed by other candidates on Friday.
A criminal complaint (PDF) unsealed Thursday accuses Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, 23, of Sacramento, of traveling to Syria to fight and lying to investigators about it. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a statement that while Al-Jayab was potentially dangerous, there is no indication that he planned any U.S. attacks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney in Houston said late Thursday that Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, 24, of Houston, was indicted Wednesday on three charges that he tried to provide material support to the extremists.
In addition to Cruz’s comments, Al Hardan’s arrest brought criticism of the Obama administration’s refugee policies from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, among the Republican governors who have opposed placing Syrian refugees in their states.
“This is precisely why I called for a halt to refugees entering the U.S. from countries substantially controlled by terrorists,” Abbott said in a statement. “I once again urge the President to halt the resettlement of these refugees in the United States until there is an effective vetting process that will ensure refugees do not compromise the safety of Americans and Texans.”
Both suspects are Palestinians born in Iraq, authorities said.
The complaint in federal court in Sacramento said Al-Jayab came to the United States from Syria as a refugee in October 2012. While living in Arizona and Wisconsin, he communicated on social media about his intent to return to Syria to fight for terrorist organizations and discussed his previous experience fighting against the regime in Syria, starting shortly after he turned 16. When he was interviewed by citizenship officials, he lied about his travels and ties, the complaint alleges.
“America will not isolate me from my Islamic duty,” Al-Jayab wrote to an unnamed acquaintance in April 2013, according to the complaint. “Only death will do us part. My only wish is to see you and start the action.”
He left the United States in November 2013, but he came to Sacramento in January 2014, the FBI said in a 20-page affidavit.
Social media and other accounts say that as soon as he arrived in the United States, he began saying he wanted to return to Syria to “work,” which the FBI says is believed to be a reference “to assisting in and supporting violent jihad.” Authorities said he eventually fought with various terrorist organizations, including Ansar al-Islam, which in 2014 merged with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after Al-Jayab had returned to the United States.
Yet he criticized Islamic State group in several messages for killing Muslims.
“If it weren’t for the State’s bloodletting, I would have been the first one to join it,” he said, according to the FBI, although he later described fighting alongside the group.
The documents did not indicate how the two men are connected.
However, the affidavit says Al-Jayab communicated with an unnamed individual living in Texas in April 2013 to see if he could receive training in various weapons.
A few days later, he described, during earlier fighting, emptying seven ammunition magazines from his assault rifle during a battle and executing three Syrian government soldiers.
Ben Galloway of the federal defender’s office is Al-Jayab’s attorney. He did not return telephone and emailed messages Thursday.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento said Al-Jayab was arrested Thursday morning in Sacramento.
Federal officials say three separate arrests in Milwaukee on Thursday grew out of the Sacramento investigation but are not related to national security.
The suspects in Wisconsin are relatives of the man arrested in Sacramento, said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento.
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