Federal agents have arrested an Iraqi refugee in Sacramento on a charge that he lied to immigration authorities over his ties to terror groups and travel to Syria, where he allegedly fought before returning to the United States in 2014.
Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, 23, an Iraqi-born Palestinian, is named in a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in federal court in Sacramento and unsealed late Thursday as word of his arrest began to spread.
He is to appear in federal court on Friday at 2 p.m.
“Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab allegedly traveled overseas to fight alongside terrorist organizations and lied to U.S. authorities about his activities,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said in a statement. “The National Security Division’s highest priority is protecting the nation from terrorism, and we will continue to hold accountable those who seek to join or aid the cause of terrorism, whether at home or abroad.”
Word of the complaint came amid reports of terror-related investigations in Milwaukee and Houston and the announcement of another Iraqi refugee being arrested in the Texas city.
The arrest of Al-Jayab, who is being held in the Sacramento County jail without bail, was confirmed by U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner’s office in Sacramento.
“According to the allegations in the complaint, the defendant traveled to Syria to take up arms with terrorist organizations and concealed that conduct from immigration authorities,” Wagner said. “While he represented a potential safety threat, there is no indication that he planned any acts of terrorism in this country.”
The criminal complaint and 18-page supporting FBI affidavit say Al-Jayab emigrated from Syria to the United States in October 2012, where he initially lived in Tucson, Ariz., and then moved to Milwaukee before traveling overseas.
While he was living in Milwaukee, Al-Jayab allegedly began communicating with individuals in Syria about traveling there and about his past experience fighting overseas, the complaint says.
“America will not isolate me from my Islamic duty,” Al-Jayab allegedly wrote on April 8, 2013, to one acquaintance. “Only death will do us part. My only wish is to see you and start the action.”
At one point, Al-Jayab wrote to another person that “I am at the shooting club. I want to learn long-range shooting,” and sent photos from a gun range in Wisconsin as well as photos of himself with various weapons, the complaint states.
Investigators say Al-Jayab received about $4,500 from an auto insurance claim in November 2013 and bought an airline ticket from Chicago to Istanbul, Turkey, from which he crossed the border into Syria. While he was overseas, he allegedly communicated with associates and relatives about traveling to Syria to join up with terror groups to fight with them.
In January 2014, Al-Jayab returned to the United States on a flight from London to Los Angeles and, later, Sacramento, the criminal complaint states. Upon entering the country in California, the complaint states, Al-Jayab listed only Jordan and the United Kingdom on a customs form listing where he had traveled.
He was interviewed by immigration authorities in July 2014 and said he had traveled to Turkey about six months earlier, the complaint states. Al-Jayab was interviewed again in October 2014 and told authorities he had gone to Turkey to visit his grandmother but said he had not provided any assistance to terror groups, the complaint states.
In June 2015, Al-Jayab was interviewed again by FBI agents and told them “voluntarily and without solicitation from the FBI” about travel problems he was having at an airport, the complaint says.
“During that interview, Al-Jayab stated he had traveled to Turkey for a vacation,” the complaint states. “He denied traveling to Syria.”
Based upon Al-Jayab’s statements and evidence gathered by federal agents, there is “probable cause to believe” he went to Syria and was a member of a rebel group and provided material support to a terror group, the complaint states.
Al-Jayab, who has relatives in Sacramento, faces up to eight years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
Word of his arrest, his contacts in Wisconsin and another arrest in Texas spread quickly Thursday, with the Houston Chronicle reporting that officials in that state had been briefed on the matter.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Houston said Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, 24, was charged in a three-count indictment with lying to government agents and with providing material support to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
That suspect also was an Iraqi-born Palestinian who came to the United States in 2009 as a refugee. He was accused by federal authorities of associating with Islamic State members and sympathizers throughout 2014. Neither the complaint nor the indictment say how the two men are connected.
Concern about Syrians and other immigrants coming to the United States has been the subject of fierce rhetoric in this election year, with many governors saying they do not want to admit them to their states and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump calling for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants.
The Houston Chronicle quoted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday as repeating his call for a refugee ban.
“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.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown’s office declined to comment and referred inquiries to the FBI.
California is the site of the latest and deadliest terror attack – the Dec. 2 slayings of 14 people in San Bernardino last month by two Islamic State supporters – since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The California attack came one day after a Lodi-area man, Nicholas Teausant, pleaded guilty in federal court in Sacramento to attempting to provide support to a terrorist organization. Prosecutors say Teausant, 22, tried to travel to Syria to join the group. He faces sentencing March 8 and could be given up to 15 years in prison.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189