Local News

Alleged ISIS recruiter gets federal prison time for immigration, tax fraud

Posted August 8, 2018 3:03 p.m. EDT
Updated August 8, 2018 6:15 p.m. EDT

— A Fayetteville man who the FBI says was a recruiter for Islamic State forces was sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison on federal fraud and tax charges.

Houcine Becher Ghoul, 43, pleaded guilty last fall to lying on his application for U.S. citizenship and two counts of tax fraud. He also must pay $18,000 to the government for the tax offenses, and after his prison time is up, he will be deported.

Ghoul, a native of Tunisia, entered the U.S. in 2001 on a tourist visa. After overstaying his visa, he married a U.S. citizen, whom he later divorced, and obtained status as a legal permanent resident, authorities said Wednesday.

He admitted to lying when asked on his citizenship application last year as to whether he supported a terrorist organization and to whether he had ever married anyone for the purpose of obtaining an immigration benefit, authorities said. The tax charges were for underreporting his income by $90,000 in 2015 and 2016.

"I think your conduct is disgraceful, wrong, despicable and without any redeeming value. You should be punished," U.S. District Judge James Dever III said.

Ghoul doesn't face any terror-related charges because court documents show no specific evidence that he he financed or planned to carry out terrorism.

The FBI began investigating him in 2014 after a Facebook post on an account associated with his name indicated support of terrorism.

Investigators tracked his social media accounts, one of which included a photo of a man in a convenience store holding a handmade sign that reads, "The American support for the Islamic State" in Arabic. Below it, in English, it says, "ISIS, North Carolina USA."

Authorities later discovered that the individual holding the sign was an unwitting participant asked to hold the sign while Ghoul posed him for the photo, which later appeared in an online propaganda video released on an ISIS YouTube channel to display the worldwide support for ISIS.

​The FBI used undercover sources to make contact with Ghoul when he worked at the Snack Attack convenience store in Fayetteville. He was fired from the store in 2015.

An informant said Ghoul bragged that he had sent as many as 13 people overseas to support ISIS activities.

Agents also went through Ghoul's many Twitter accounts, which have since been deactivated. On one of his pages, Ghoul described himself as an "extremist, terrorist, tough, brain-washed, radical, I love explosions, booby trapping, beheading the enemy."

Defense attorney Chris Locascio claimed Ghoul was going through a mid-life crisis and was seeking respect and excitement.

"His views were shallow, superficial," Locascio told Dever. "This case shows the powers and dangers with the internet and social media."

Ghoul had a "wake-up call" during a trip home to Tunisia, where he was questioned by officials, and he began to clean up his act, Locascio said.

"He lost his way. He is finding his way his way back. He is humbled, contrite," the attorney said.

But Dever noted that the false tax returns were filed after Ghoul returned from Tunisia.

"Looking at you eye to eye, I don't think you're remorseful," Dever told Ghoul.

"I am," Ghoul replied.

"Well, I don't believe you," the judge said.