Federal terrorism charges lodged against two Iraqi refugees living in Texas and California added new fodder to a national debate over U.S. plans to accept thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and the violent Islamic State, which has sought to take its fight to Europe and much of the west.
Within hours after court documents were unsealed late Thursday, Republican lawmakers seized on the cases of Omar Faraj Al Hardan, 24, in Houston, and Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, 23, in Sacramento, as new exhibits in their efforts to either subject Syrian and Iraqi refugees to unprecedented scrutiny or block their re-settlement in the United States altogether.
“While I commend the FBI for their hard work, these arrests heighten my concern that our refugee program is susceptible to exploitation by terrorists,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas said Friday.“The president has assured us that individuals from Iraq and Syria receive close scrutiny, but it is clearly not enough.''
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the additional vetting represented the "tallest of tasks'' for federal authorities.
"For the sake of national security, the president needs to heed the calls from the American people and rescind his proposal to admit thousands of Syrians through the Refugee Resettlement Program,” Grassley said in a statement Friday.
Texas Gov.Greg Abbott, who last month unsuccessfully attempted to block efforts by a local relief group and federal authorities to help resettle 21 Syrian refugees in the state, again urged the Obama administration to "halt'' the resettlement program until a stricter vetting process is in place.
"This is precisely why I called for a halt to refugees entering the U.S. from countries substantially controlled by terrorists,'' Abbott said.
The Texas governor is one of more than two dozen governors, most of them Republican, who have opposed accepting Syrian exiles.
Both of the Iraqi terror suspects, meanwhile, made their first court appearances Friday as court documents detailed a link between the two men.
A cache of electronic communications seized from al-Jayab includes a series of electronic exchanges with Al Hardan beginning in April 2013 in which the two allegedly discuss how Al Hardan could obtain weapons training if he traveled to the region.
"If you arrive and I am still here," al-Jayab told Al Hardan in a April 9 message, "I will train you. And once you are done, I will submit a request to the person in charge so you would come and work with me.''
"So, they will assign me to a certain job according to my abilities?'' Al Hardan allegedly asked.
"No, we will make your abilities very strong...When you arrive to al-Sham (Syria), you will be trained,'' al-Jayab responded.
The seized electronic communications also allegedly indicate that al-Jayab was working with others to assist Al Hardan's future travel to the region through a contact in Syria, identified in court documents as "Individual F.''
"You explain to him (Al Hardan) if he comes here, he shouldn't go back (to the U.S.),'' the Syrian contact allegedly wrote to al-Jayab. "Either victory or martyrdom.''
"America will not isolate me from my Islamic duty,'' al-Jayab responded. "Only death will do us part.''
In latter exchanges with Al Hardan, al-Jayab allegedly acknowledges his involvement in combat, once firing off "seven magazines in one breath.''
"We executed three,'' al-Jayab told Al Hardan of one battle in Damascus against soldiers defending the Assad regime. "As for the brother who was with me, he shot two.''
U.S. officials granted Al Hardan legal permanent residence status in 2011, two years after he entered the country as an Iraqi refugee. He is also charged with unlawfully obtaining resident status. According to court documents, Al Hardan sought to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and "swore untruthfully on his formal application when applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.''
"He allegedly represented that he was not associated with a terrorist organization when, in fact, he associated with members and sympathizers of ISIL throughout 2014,'' prosecutors said.
During an interview in October, Al Hardan "falsely'' denied having received any type of weapons training, even though he had learned how to fire machine guns, prosecutors said.
Al-Jayab came to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee in October 2012. He was charged with lying to federal authorities about his travel to fight with various terror groups. There is no indication, however, that Al-Jayab planned to commit acts of terrorism while in the U.S.
According to court documents, he communicated with nearly a dozen others, both in Syria and elsewhere, about his intention to fight for terrorist organizations in the region against the Syrian regime.
Between November 2013 and January 2014, Al-Jayab allegedly reported on social media that he was in Syria fighting with groups including Ansar al-Islam, an insurgent organization in Iraq and Syria that later merged with the Islamic State. He returned to the U.S. in January 2014, and settled in Sacramento.
Al-Jayab allegedly told U.S. immigration authorities that he had traveled to the region to visit his grandmother.
Sacramento, where al-Jayab lived, is home to several large refugee communities but relatively few Iraqis, according to World Relief, a Christian group that provides resettlement support in the city.
So far there has been very little backlash against the Iraqi refugee community there, said Kirk Lewis, World Relief's Sacramento office director.
“When these kinds of things happen, there are people that want to process the concerns and fears that they have,'' Lewis said.
Shireen Jasser, president of the Syrian American Council of Houston, said recent Arab refugees in the Houston area fear a backlash – from authorities and citizens – related to Al Hardan’s arrest.
“There’s so much hate already directed at Syrian refugees, so much xenophobia,” she said, referring to Abbott’s efforts last year to block Syrian refugees from entering Texas. “They’re worried about how [the arrest] will affect their future. They’re scared for their physical safety.”
Jasser said she hopes resettlement agencies receive more funding to better vet incoming refugees.
“This still shouldn’t stop the U.S. government from resettling people who are victims of war,” she said. “The overwhelming majority just want safety.”
Jervis reported from Texas. Contributing: Elizabeth Weise reported from California.
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