On the surface, Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab appears to be a typical young man trying to make it in America.
He is a student at American River College who had hopes of studying computer science, and had a job at a Sacramento Ramada Inn, according to his Facebook page.
He evidently likes sleek, fast cars, judging from the many photos he posted on Facebook, and has a penchant for posing before the Golden Gate Bridge and elsewhere wearing the chic clothing you might see young hipsters wearing at any American shopping mall.
But federal authorities say Al-Jayab has another, darker side. They say the Iraqi refugee, who came to the United States in 2012, went back to the Middle East two years later to join up and fight with terror groups in Syria before returning to this country and settling in Sacramento.
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On Friday, Al-Jayab, 23, was marched into an eighth-floor courtroom at the federal courthouse in downtown Sacramento with his arms and legs shackled. U.S. marshals watched closely as he made his initial appearance on a charge that he lied to federal agents about where he went overseas and what activities he engaged in while he was out of the country.
Instead of going to Turkey to visit his grandmother, as he allegedly claimed, court documents say he went into Syria to join the fighting there, then lied to agents about it repeatedly when he returned to this country.
Listening through an Arabic interpreter, Al-Jayab sat quietly Friday afternoon as U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn K. Delaney ordered him held without bail after declaring he represented a flight risk and a danger to the community.
A few minutes later, his younger brother, Samer Mohammed Al-Jayab, 19, was escorted in and put through the same process as he appeared facing a charge in an unrelated case: possessing stolen goods, cellphones he allegedly bought from an undercover FBI source in Milwaukee, where he lived until arriving in Sacramento Wednesday to visit his brother.
Another brother and a cousin appeared in court on the same stolen goods charges Friday in a federal courtroom in Milwaukee, documents indicate.
Federal authorities also have arrested a man in Houston and charged him with providing material support to the Islamic State, although officials have not said whether the cases have any links.
In Sacramento, Aws Al-Jayab’s younger brother was ordered released on $25,000 bail and told to report to court authorities in Milwaukee next Monday, something Samer Al-Jayab said in court through his interpreter might be difficult because anytime he flies he is inevitably delayed for hours, apparently by security checks.
Delaney told him he would be given a phone number to call from the U.S. Marshals Service if he runs into difficulty flying to Chicago on Sunday and then being driven by relatives to Milwaukee.
The arrests of the two men, as well as the others in Milwaukee and Houston on Thursday, have directed a new spotlight on immigration from the Middle East and terror fears at home. Presidential candidates and other political figures seized on the arrests and spent Friday denouncing the Obama administration’s stance on allowing immigrants from Syria and elsewhere into this country as a dangerous policy.
But Aws Al-Jayab’s court-appointed federal public defender, Benjamin Galloway, said there was no evidence his client was a threat to anyone in the United States and noted that he had been here for two years without incident.
“There is no indication that Mr. Al-Jayab planned any acts of terror in this country,” Galloway said in court. “There is nothing to suggest Mr. Al-Jayab planned to harm anyone in the country.”
He noted that U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner had issued a statement Thursday afternoon essentially saying the same thing, although Wagner’s statement also said that he was a “potential safety threat.”
“He’s a student, and he has a job here in Sacramento,” Galloway said.
Outside of court, Galloway noted that his client and the brother were arrested only after voluntarily reporting to the Sacramento FBI office Thursday. Aws Al-Jayab had gone to the FBI at least twice before and immigration officials two times – each time voluntarily – Galloway said, and his arrest did not interrupt any terrorist plot.
“The only activity that’s been interrupted is his studies, his work,” Galloway said. He added in response to reporters’ questions that it is “too soon to tell” whether the arrests are politically motivated.
For all the attention Al-Jayab was receiving Friday, he evidently made little impression before that on local Muslim organizations.
“I’ve reached out to all the different mosques and no one recognizes this guy,” said Basim Elkarra, director of the Sacramento Chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Although Aws Al-Jayab references Masjid Annur Islamic Center – one of the Sacramento region’s oldest and largest mosques – on his Facebook page, Elkarra ran his picture by the imam, the mosque board and various community members “and none of them have ever seen the guy.”
Elkarra has also checked with groups at Salam Islamic Center, and no one recalled ever seeing the suspect.
Apparently Al-Jayab did attend an Eid ceremony and feast of sacrifice last Sept. 24 at Masjid Annur with about 5,000 other Muslims, and wished everyone a happy Eid on his Facebook page.
Elkarra said the Facebook page and the federal criminal complaint indicate “he did care a lot about Syria and was against the Bashar al-Assad regime, but the U.S. attorney said he posed no threat, and there was no indication he planned to do anything here.”
American River College confirmed Al-Jayab has attended ARC since fall 2015 as a computer science major and is currently enrolled, said spokesman Mitchel Benson.
Al-Jayab has taken English as a second language classes, but has yet to take computer science class, said ARC spokesman Scott Crow.
Sarmed Ibrahim, founder of the nonprofit Mesopotamia organization helping Iraqi refugees here and a board member of Opening Doors resettlement agency, also had no knowledge of Al-Jayab or his family.
Al-Jayab’s Facebook postings consist largely of pictures of himself and photos of cars. In one picture, the young, bearded man is standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, jacket slung casually over his shoulder.
He has also posted several videos in Arabic, one complaining about backbiters and how in their day of reckoning they will wish they had never been given tongues, and the other proclaiming devotion to Allah.
Al-Jayab often posts on Facebook in Arabic, where he comes across as articulate and poetic, “and really wants the suffering to end for the Syrians,” said Adeeb Al Zanoon, a local human rights activist who translated for The Sacramento Bee.
“He was in Turkey and said he’s going somewhere, ‘don’t worry about me,’ and did say Ansar al-Islam had been successful in killing somebody in the Assad regime,” Al Zanoon said.
Ansar al-Islam is a Sunni extremist group often linked to al-Qaida. A research brief from Stanford University says its relationship with the Islamic State has “vacillated between one of close cooperation and one of armed hostilities.”
Between November and December 2013 – when he was allegedly in Syria – Al-Jayab’s Facebook postings create the impression that “he is really torn over what’s happening in Syria because he wants the people ‘to get rid of the devil, Assad and his Satanic regime.’ ” Al Zanoon said. “At one point he said, ‘There are some things that are so painful I can’t find words to describe what I’m seeing.’ ”
On May 15, Al-Jayab posted a video of someone reading words that Al Zanoon translated as saying: “Allah, you know what is unknown to me. I submit to you and for your commands. With my good behavior and discipline because of your blessing, I refuse to disobey you and I fear you, as you know my body trembles and my heart seeks forgiveness.”