HOUSTON (CN) — A legal resident the FBI busted before he could travel to Syria to be a bomb expert for the Islamic State was sentenced Monday to 16 years in federal prison.
Iraq-born Omar Faraj Saeed al Hardan entered the United States with his parents as a refugee in 2009 and became a permanent resident in 2011.
Al Hardan, 25, was arrested at a Department of Homeland Security office in Houston in January 2016. He was living in a Houston-area apartment with his wife and their 10-month-old son.
Though al Hardan was working as a limo driver, Uber driver and a vehicle emissions inspector in Houston, he had not integrated well into American society, his court-appointed attorney David Adler said at his sentencing hearing Monday.
“He led a very isolated life here in the U.S.,” Adler said. “He was not aware of just how fortunate he was to be in a country like this. He had very little contact outside his family, very little contact with English-speaking Americans, and that led him to believe a lot of things he saw online that he no longer believes.”
Al Hardan, wearing an olive green jump suit, his black hair parted down the middle and noticeably thinner since his arrest nearly two years ago, stood next to Adler with his head bowed at a podium in front of U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.
Adler said al Hardan is taking classes in prison and getting certificates to improve his skills so he can provide for his family when he is released.
“But he’s turned away forever from his belief that going overseas to help a primitive organization like ISIS is a smart idea,” Adler said.
A federal grand jury handed down a three-count indictment in January 2016, charging al Hardan with attempting to join ISIS, lying on his citizenship application about his ties to terrorist groups, and not disclosing during an interview with an immigration official that he’d been trained how to shoot a machine gun.
Prosecutors said in court Monday that al Hardan had been in contact in 2013 via Facebook Messenger with three men who were fighting in the Middle East for the Al-Nusra Front, before he applied for citizenship in August 2014.
He told the informant he needed to get a passport to travel to Syria to fight alongside ISIS, according to the indictment.
Al-Nusra, also designated by the government as a foreign terrorist group, is fighting the Syrian government in the country’s civil war that’s well into its sixth year.
Prosecutors said the FBI began investigating al Hardan and had its informant contact him after he lost contact with Al-Nusra Front fighters and started ordering electronic parts.
Al Hardan has admitted he lied on his citizenship application, saying he had no ties to terrorist organizations, and that he did not disclose during an interview with an immigration official that the FBI informant had trained him how to shoot an AK-47 rifle.
Al Hardan pleaded guilty in October 2016 to attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
Al Hardan read a statement at the Monday hearing after Judge Hughes said the federal sentencing guidelines recommended he be sentenced to five to six years in federal prison.
Speaking rapidly with an accent, Al Hardan asked Hughes to consider his family before sentencing him.
“Your honor, I lost one of my sisters. She was crying a lot when she saw me handcuffed on TV. Two weeks after I got arrested, she died with a stroke. … Please consider, I have a son. He will be in school in about three years. He needs his father’s support. He’s sick. We just found water in his head. I am not a bomb maker, your honor, and I have no experience with electronics,” he said.
An Department of Homeland Security agent testified at al Hardan’s January 2016 detention hearing that al Hardan met with the FBI informant 17 times, starting in June 2014, and that al Hardan told the informant he wanted to plant bombs at two Houston malls and detonate them remotely with cellphones.
Al Hardan denied that in the statement he read Monday.
“I didn’t plan to attack any place or plan to hurt anyone. … Even the FBI said there was never any active or planned plot targeting a specific location in Houston or elsewhere. Your honor, the informant, he is the one who came up with the idea that he wanted to put a bomb in either Sharpstown or Galleria Mall, not me. And also the idea to blow it up with a cellphone was his, not my idea.”
Hughes interrupted him. “Did you tell him, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not even considering anything like that?’” Hughes asked.
“I didn’t agree, your honor, about the idea he came up with.”
“Did you vehemently disassociate yourself from that suggestion?”
Unsure of the meaning of Hughes’ words, Al Hardan leaned close to Adler and they whispered momentarily before Adler spoke for him.
“Obviously, judge, he should have left the informant as soon as this came up, but he didn’t do it,” Adler said.
Federal prosecutors told reporters after the hearing that al Hardan never said he wanted to plant bombs at Houston malls, that the Homeland Security agent’s testimony about that was wrong, and the record had been corrected.
Al Hardan wore headphones during the hearing, through which the proceedings were translated to him by a translator in the courtroom.
To prepare for the sentencing, Hughes asked prosecutors to give him records of all similar cases in which people had been arrested, prosecuted and sentenced in the United States before they could carry out plans to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS or other terrorist groups.
Prosecutor Ralph Imperato told Hughes there have been 25 such cases, and that al Hardan’s stood out among them because the FBI found electronic-circuitry components and tools needed to assemble them in his apartment, and that he told the FBI informant he had been watching online videos to learn how to build improvised explosive devices, which the FBI corroborated with a search of his computer.
“I would say that this defendant is worse than these conspirators because none of them, maybe one, had to do with explosives,” Imperato said. “He’s the only one that dealt with explosives. He’s worse than them. But the average [federal prison sentence] of all of these, if you combine them is 206.5 months. That’s a 17-year average. We ask for upward departure, that you sentence him to 240 months and lifetime supervision.”
Hughes took a 20-minute recess, during which al Hardan sat in a wooden chair in a corner of the courtroom and intermittently held his hands palms up in his lap and stared down at them, a pose that looked like prayer.
Upon returning, Hughes said the key to the government’s case was al Hardan’s false claims to immigration officials.
“What makes the case an attempt is lying for naturalization for a passport so you could in fact do what you needed to do under your plan of becoming a bomb maker for ISIS,” Hughes told al Hardan. “And that’s what you talked about. And you had some stuff that indicated you were serious about that.
“Mr. Al Hardan, what you planned and attempted to do was seriously illegal, and however inept you may have been in executing your plans, clumsy bomb-makers, stupid planners, have killed a lot of people.”
Hughes continued: “The court is somewhat troubled by your equivocation this morning, where it was all the undercover guy. He didn’t talk too much. You never disassociated yourself from him. … So on the narrow grounds of planning, training and attempting to get a travel document you weren’t entitled to, 16 years in prison is the correct sentence.”
Hughes also sentenced al Hardan to a lifetime of supervised release after he serves his time.
In a gesture of resignation, al Hardan removed his headphones, he took the rolled-up paper on which he had written his statement from his shirt pocket and stuffed it into his pants pocket. That prompted a U.S. marshal, his linebacker’s physique clear in his tailored gray suit, to move close behind al Hardan.
“Do you have any questions, Mr. al Hardan?” Hughes asked.
“About the sentence, your honor. About the sentence, is it final?”
“It will be this afternoon, when I sign the document,” Hughes replied. “When you are released, among the terms of your release are that you report to immigration and see what they want to do with you. I think you should be deported, but that’s up to them.”
Al Hardan is one of three men who have been charged in Houston Federal Court with attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization since May 2015.
Al Hardan will turn 26 on Christmas.