LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two Southern California men accused of conspiring to travel to the Middle East to join the Islamic State pleaded not guilty on Monday to financial fraud charges connected with their alleged attempts to support the militant group, federal officials said.
Muhanad Badawi and Nader Elhuzayel, residents of Anaheim, appeared in federal court in Santa Ana to face additional charges of bank and financial aid fraud that had been added to charges of conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
Federal prosecutors have accused Elhuzayel, 25, of depositing stolen checks, drawn on three U.S. bank accounts, into his personal account and then withdrawing the money. Badawi, 24, is accused of using federal financial aid intended for his studies to buy Elhuzayel a plane ticket to Turkey, where he could move on to Syria and link up with Islamic State.
During Monday’s court hearing, Elhuzayel said: “Ridiculous, not guilty,” when asked to enter his plea to the financial fraud charges, the Orange County Register reported.
The allegations against the two men represent one of the most recent cases of U.S. authorities cracking down on individuals they believe are seeking to join Islamic State, which is fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Badawi’s attorney, Kate Corrigan, told the Orange County Register the allegations of financial fraud “are a clear indication that the government believes it has a problem with the original charges.”
The FBI said in a statement earlier this month the new indictment “reiterates the previous charges against Elhuzayel and Badawi.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, on May 3, Elhuzayel tweeted his support for two men who that day attacked an exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in Garland, Texas, and were shot to death by police.
Badawi and Elhuzayel were also recorded talking to each other when they expressed support for the Islamic State, an affidavit said.
Elhuzayel, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport and admitted he had planned to travel to Istanbul in order to move towards Turkey’s border with Syria, where he would join Islamic State, authorities said.
Badawi had indicated he planned to eventually travel to the Middle East, prosecutors said.
The two men face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of aiding the Islamic State. In addition, Elhuzayel faces up to 30 years for bank fraud and Badawi up to five years on the financial aid fraud count, the FBI said.
Trial is set for next year.
Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Edmund Klamann