HOUSTON (CN) - An Iraqi refugee arrested on charges of supporting Islamic State terrorists made his first court appearance in Houston on Friday morning.
Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, a Palestinian born in Iraq, wore tan khakis and a long-sleeved, black-and-gray striped shirt to the hearing, during which he disclosed that U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents arrested him on Thursday.
He asked for an interpreter, but when U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy asked him his age he said, "I'm 24," in perfect English. He entered the United States as a refugee in 2009 at age 17, and became a permanent resident in 2011.
Milloy urged him to answer questions through his interpreter. He leaned his ear into the interpreter, a middle-age woman with bleach blonde hair, and listened carefully as she relayed Milloy's questions to him.
The short and stocky Al Hardan told the judge he lives with his wife and their child in a Harris County apartment. His wife's parents live in Dallas, he said.
The terror suspect said he went to school in Jordan and has limited ability to read and write English.
As Johnson laid out the charges against Al Hardan, asking if he understood them, he nodded his head repeatedly, at times shrugging his shoulders, during the 20-minute hearing.
A three-count indictment unsealed Thursday night charged Al Hardan with attempting to "provide material support and resources...specifically himself...to a known foreign terrorist group," lying on his U.S. citizenship application about 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.
If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum of 53 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Speaking in a halting manner to give Al Hardan's interpreter time to relay her questions, Milloy asked him about his finances to determine if he qualified for a court-appointed defense attorney. He told the judge he had three income sources that amount to $1,800 a month and $1,700 in the bank.
Milloy appointed David Adler as his attorney, ordered him to pay the Justice Department $700 to defray the defense costs, and mandated that he transfer the rest of the money in his account to his wife.
He told the judge he didn't know whether his wife had heard about his arrest.
Federal prosecutor Ralph Imperato said the government will move to deny Al Hardan bond because it considers him a flight risk and a danger to the community.
Milloy set Al Hardan's bond hearing and arraignment for Jan. 13 at 11 a.m., during which he will enter a plea, U.S. Attorney Ken Magidson told reporters in front of the courthouse after the hearing.
Magidson repeatedly told reporters he wouldn't discuss the allegations beyond what's in the indictment because Al Hardan is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Magidson further declined to say whether Al Hardan's case was related to Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, 23, who was arrested Thursday in Sacramento, Calif.
Prosecutors allege Al-Jayab traveled to Syria to fight with terrorists and lied to U.S. immigration authorities about it when he returned to the United States.
"Obviously international terrorism is a high priority of the United States Attorney's Office," Magidson said. "We work closely with the FBI terrorism task force to ensure the safety of the public and we'll do everything we can to ensure cases of this ilk are brought to justice. We feel very confident in the evidence of this case."
Magidson told reporters that the public was never in danger from Al Hardan.
If Al Hardan is convicted, Magidson said the United States will move to deport him.
Though Magidson wouldn't say whether Al Hardan's alleged affiliation with the Islamic State began before or after he moved to the United States, Texas officials who oppose settling Syrian refugees in the state out of terrorism concerns said it proved their point.
"It is disturbing, though not surprising, that terrorists have succeeded in exploiting our refugee system to come to the U.S. and aid ISIS," Texas Republican congressman Lamar Smith said in a statement.
Smith co-sponsored the State Refugee Security Act of 2015, along with Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, which would let states opt out of the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
He also introduced legislation to defund the government's refugee resettlement program "until reports on the safety, costs, and history of terrorism among refugees have been submitted to Congress," he said in a statement.
Texas sued the United States last month, trying to keep Syrian refugees out of Texas. The United States says Texas has no right to keep legally admitted refugees out of the state.
In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Al Hardan's arrest "a troubling revelation, especially in light of the president's insistence on placing further refugees in Texas."
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