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A Texas man who claimed to have traveled to Syria to fight with the Free Syrian Army was arrested Thursday on charges that he lied to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents about pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the terrorist group ISIS.
Bilal Abood, 37, an Iraqi-born naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Mesquite, appeared in federal court in Texas Thursday on a charge of making a false statement to the FBI, the Department of Justice said. If convicted, he faces up a maximum of eight years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Prosecutors don’t allege that Abood ever fought with ISIS or provided support to the terrorist organization.
A criminal complaint says Abood lied to investigators who seized and searched his computer in 2014, a search that allegedly revealed Abood had watched ISIS beheading videos and that he tweeted, "I pledge obedience to the Caliphate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi."
When agents returned his computer on April 14, they asked Abood if he ever pledged allegiance to the ISIS leader, according to the complaint. Abood allegedly said he knew it is a crime to lie to a federal agent and then denied making the pledge, the complaint said. It wasn’t immediately clear if Abood had a lawyer. A detention hearing is scheduled for Friday morning.
Abood’s arrest comes as U.S. authorities are on heightened alert for domestic ISIS sympathizers. Last week, the military stepped up security measures at installations around the country over concerns over what a defense official called "homegrown violent extremists."
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The increased security came after two gunmen were killed in a planned attack on a "Draw Muhammad" cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, on May 3. FBI Director James Comey said the FBI is investigating hundreds of potential homegrown extremists in the U.S.
The FBI had been monitoring Abood since March of 2013, when he was prevented from boarding an international flight at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and later allegedly admitted he wanted to go to Syria and fight with the Free Syrian Army, which is not listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.
A confidential informant told investigators that Abood had been watching al Qaeda and ISIS videos on the internet and that Abood said he wanted to help build the Islamic State of Iraq, according to the criminal complaint.
Abood made it to Syria in April of 2013 by traveling through Mexico, but told agents after his return in September of that year he stayed at an FSA camp and never supported ISIS or any other terrorist organization in the region, according to the criminal complaint. Agents searched his computer in July of 2014 and the Twitter posts were allegedly discovered.
On Thursday, ISIS issued a rare message purportedly from al-Baghdadi in an apparent attempt to quash rumors that he had been killed. On Wednesday, the Iraqi government claimed a deputy leader of ISIS, Abu Alaa al-Afri, was killed in an airstrike.