HOUSTON (CN) – A federal magistrate judge denied bond Wednesday to a Texan accused of offering his services as an English teacher to the Islamic State and working for the terrorist group in Syria, rejecting his parents’ request to let him live at their home until his trial.
Warren Christopher Clark, 34, is charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State group from 2011 to October 2015. He pleaded not guilty Wednesday. His trial is set for March 18, 2019 in federal court in Galveston.
Slim, bald and bearded in a baggy orange jumpsuit that he wore over a gray long-sleeve shirt, Clark walked on crutches to the defense table Wednesday, stepping on his sandaled right foot, his left foot bare save a gray sock that dangled loosely from his toes.
Clark seemed oddly at ease during the two-and-a-half hour hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Bray at the Houston federal courthouse.
He draped his left leg over the arm of his chair and rested his head on his hand as Scott Sosa, a police officer for the city of Sugar Land, and member of an FBI joint terrorism task force, read statements prosecutors said Clark had made in emails and social media communications about his affinity for the Islamic State group.
Sosa said that Clark, a practicing Muslim since high school, caught the attention of FBI agents in 2011 because he was hosting a YouTube channel called Jihadi Fan Club on which he was openly supporting the IS group.
“He was advocating killing of enemy combatants and that jihadis would take over the world. . . . He stated that there’s paradise for killing enemies of Islam, in particular U.S. soldiers,” Sosa said in a flat tone.
Sosa said the FBI interviewed Clark, who obtained a political science degree from the University of Houston in 2007, before he left the country to teach English in Saudi Arabia from 2012 to 2014. “He said ‘No’ when questioned if he had made statements against the U.S. and supporting violence,” Sosa said.
Sosa frowned and peered over his glasses as he read from a classified FBI report about Clark, responding to questions from federal prosecutors.
According to Sosa, Clark’s father Warren Anthony Clark forwarded the State Department an email from Clark in August 2015 in which Clark stated he had crossed the border from Turkey into Syria and was with the Islamic State group, who had forced him to undergo a month of military and religious training.
“He said he was in a war zone. He said, ‘I do not plan on fighting or going to war,’” Sosa said.
Sosa read statements he said Clark had written in emails in summer 2015: “Beheading people is Islamic,” “Love live the Islamic State. They are the only ones doing jihad,” and “It is not haram to kill in front of kids.”
Prosecutor Mark McIntyre said, “What does haram mean in Arabic to the best of your ability?”
“Forbidden,” Sosa said.
Sosa testified that Clark had also communicated on social media in 2015 with a 17-year-old who was eager to enlist with the Islamic State group.
“Clark asked the teenager, ‘Are you going to the caliphate to live or fight?’” Sosa said. The Islamic State group calls its territory a caliphate.
“Martyrdom,” Sosa said the teenager replied.
“Clark said, ‘God willing you will live in Islamic State soon,” Sosa said.
“So he’s God willing for a 17-year-old to martyr himself?” McIntyre said.
Sosa said Clark offered to pick the teen up in Turkey and take him to territory controlled by the Islamic State group in Syria.
Clark reportedly lived with the IS group in Mosul, Iraq after sending a resume and a cover letter, stating “I am looking to get a position teaching English to students in the Islamic State.”
According to electronic correspondence obtained by the FBI, Clark wrote, “Ninety-nine percent of people trained by ISIS become soldiers. If you choose to be a civilian, ISIS will not provide any assistance to you and it’s hard to get hired because people don’t trust you.”
Sosa said Clark emailed his sister that the group was paying for his room and board and he had no plans on returning to Texas.
“I am here to build ISIS,” Sosa said Clark wrote.
Magistrate Bray spoke up to clarify there’s no evidence Clark joined the Islamic State group for combat. “Does everybody agree that nowhere in the emails or social media posts did he say he wanted to fight for ISIS?” Bray said.
Prosecutor McIntyre: “I agree.”
Bray: “So there’s an implication that because his room and board is being paid by ISIS that he was a fighter.”
McIntyre: “The indictment is only two pages, your honor, and it ends in October 2015.”
The government’s case against Clark is empty from October 2015 to Jan. 6 of this year when the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group that works with U.S. soldiers, announced Clark was one of five foreigners they had captured during an offensive against the Islamic State group in northern Syria.
At Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutors played an interview Clark gave to NBC News in Syria after he was captured that the network aired on Jan. 15 in which Clark discusses the IS group’s capital punishment.
“I saw some people being executed publicly. I saw some crucifixions. You know that’s just normal life there. This is an Islamic society and an Islamic country. Things like that happen,” Clark said.
The reporter asked him, “So things like that did not bother you particularly?”
“I guess not because I knew what I was coming to see,” Clark said.
Clark said in the interview that the beheadings that the IS group regularly posted online starting in 2014 did not ward him off. “With the beheadings, OK that’s execution. You know I’m from the United States, from Texas, they like to execute people too,” he said.
Clark’s defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said from 2015 through 2018, both he and Clark’s parents were asking the FBI and the State Department to try to get Clark out of the Islamic State group’s territory and back to the United States.
DeGeurin called Clark’s father Warren Anthony Clark to the stand. The elder Clark said both he and his wife are retired from the U.S. military and from long teaching careers.
Clark, 69, tried to assure Bray that his son would not try to escape if released on bond to his home.
“We’ll be there every day with him. We’re both retired. We live in a high security neighborhood in Sugar Land where security guards drive by six or eight times a day. If I have I to hire a security guard I will,” he said.
“You’re not going to have to hire a security guard,” Bray said.
“What’s most important to us is, No. 1, he’s alive. He’s safe,” the father said.
On cross examination, McIntyre asked him if he had heard the testimony that his son had tried to help a 17-year-old join the Islamic State group.
“Yes I did,” he said.
“What’s your opinion of that?”
“I don’t have an opinion of that because I haven’t heard all the evidence.”
Warren Anthony Clark said it was his understanding from an email he received from his son that Clark had been kidnapped by the group while traveling.
McIntyre pressed him on that claim. “Would you agree before he was ‘allegedly’ kidnapped, he expressed support for ISIS?”
“I heard that, but it was the first time I heard it today,” the elder Clark said.
DeGeurin said Clark’s injuries favor releasing him on bond. Clark made his initial appearance in federal court on Jan. 25 in a wheelchair and told NBC in the Jan. 15 interview he had been injured in a personal fight.
“He can’t run. He can only walk with crutches,” DeGeurin said. “Is he a flight risk? Are his parents going to secret him to an airport? Is he going to slip out of his ankle monitor and go to an airport? It would be the humane thing to grant him bond.”
But Bray said that given the charges, and the fact they carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, there’s a statutory presumption that Clark is a danger to the community and a flight risk. He said the three-year blank in Clark’s record did not help his request for pretrial release.
“That’s an absence of evidence,” Bray said. “That’s not affirmative evidence. Maybe I can believe the family wanted him back. But I have no idea that he wanted to come back. So there’s three years he’s with ISIS doing who knows what.
“So I can’t use the absence of evidence to overcome that presumption. All his emails indicate he was completely happy with the situation.”
Bray said the testimony that he was promoting the IS group to a 17-year-old “is extremely troubling and unrebutted.”
“The question is not if he’ll run off to Syria. It’s if he’ll continue to promote ISIS,” Bray said.
Clark’s parents declined to talk to reporters after the hearing.