Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan told a government informant that he wanted to plant bombs in the Galleria and Sharpstown Mall, took an oath of loyalty to ISIS, and told his wife and mother that he was "against America," a Department of Homeland Security investigator testified at a federal detention hearing Wednesday.
The 24-year-old Palestinian-born Iraqi refugee was arrested last week and charged with providing support to a terrorist organization and lying on a citizenship application, but the details of the investigation weren't laid out until Wednesday, when Special Agent Herman Witliff testified as the prosecutors' sole witness.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ordered that Al Hardan be detained, citing the seriousness of the charges, and alleged likelihood that the defendant was a flight risk. (Al Hardan, who sat quietly at the defense table in an olive jail jumpsuit, has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest.)
Al Hardan, who came to the U.S. in 2009, communicated via Facebook with an alleged ISIS supporter in Sacramento, Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, who was also arrested last week, Witliff said. The agent testified that the men talked about the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, two attacks that seemed to inspire Al Hardan. (Witliff said that Al Hardan used to live in Dallas and spoke of slipping into an Army base in Grand Prairie to set Humvees on fire with gasoline — a fool-proof plan, if we ever heard one).
Al Hardan bought electronic components in order to build improvised explosive devices that he could trigger remotely with a cell phone, according to Witliff, who said Al Hardan spoke of planting the devices in shopping mall trash cans. When agents searched the home where Al Hardan lived with his parents, wife, and son, they found a bag old old cell phones in a closet, Witliff testified.
Agents also examined Al Hardan's computer, where they found a homemade video of Al Hardan, his father, and an unidentified person blowing up a toy car with a firecracker, Witliff said. After the car exploded, the men chanted "Allahu Akbar" — "God is the greatest" — Witliff testified.
After prosecutor Ralph Imperato asked Witliff how that chant was usually used, in an effort to tie it to terrorist acts, Hughes jumped in to say it's heard "All through the Islamic world, like [Texans] use 'God' in a variety of ways, too."
"When they blow up cars?" Imperato retorted.
The agent also testified that Al Hardan told his wife that he wanted to help ISIS in Syria and was willing to become a martyr. In conversations monitored and recorded by investigators, Al Hardan allegedly said, "I will make a widow out of you" and "I want to blow myself up."
Investigators apparently eavesdropped on their fair share of marital discord; Al Hardan allegedly told his wife, "I will make you regret every minute you disobeyed me," and that he wished she were sterile and their son was dead. To prove how serious (and un-crazy) he was, Al Hardan allegedly told his wife, "I am not wacko, I am not wacko, I am speaking the truth," Witliff testified.
Witliff also alleged that Al Hardan attempted to obtain a concealed handgun license but was unable to enroll in a class because of an outstanding misdemeanor warrant out of Fort Worth, for disorderly conduct. But he also allegedly asked someone he thought was a fellow ISIS supporter, but who turned out to be an informant, for weapons training.
In November 2014, the informant provided an AK-47 assault weapon for training at a farm outside Houston, Witliff testified. The hour-long training session also included lessons in tactical maneuvering, like "moving to cover."
David Adler, Al Hardan's court-appointed attorney, kicked off his cross-examination by telling Witliff he counted upwards of 25 non-essential government employees watching the proceedings, and asking if they were in the courtroom for a reason, or if they were "just wasting taxpayer money."
"I can't speak to that," Witliff said.
Hughes offered his own answer: "Yes."
Under questioning from Adler, Witliff testified that none of the items seized in the search were illegal, and then poked fun at the perceived menace in the toy-car-explosion video, asking how big the car was (under six inches), and about the status of the other men on the video.
"Has the FBI identified these other model car bombers?" Adler asked, noting how one of them was "on the loose."
Hughes announced his decision after a brief recess, saying that Al Hardan had no ties to Houston and that his family, who were evicted after Al Hardan's arrest, "is not an asset to this case."
Al Hardan's parents had to know about their son's proclivities, Hughes said, noting that the defendant's father participated in the model car experiment. (Hughes said blowing up a toy car with firecrackers was not indicative of character flaws, "As long as you're 14 and under.")
"He has no prospects" in Houston, Hughes said. "...His wife and child do not appear to be a tether."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The judge also opined that Al Hardan displayed an "unstable" character and mental condition, with tendencies toward violence.
Before adjourning, Hughes unfolded a small yellow slip of paper and told Al Hardan's lawyer, "Mr. Adler, my count was 11 non-essential government employees."
Adler declined to speak with reporters after the hearing. We'll keep you posted as the case progresses.