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Accused ISIS teacher remains in custody

January 31, 2019

A Sugar Land substitute teacher charged with aiding ISIS will remain in federal custody, after a judge heard testimony Wednesday he went on a YouTube channel called “jihadist fan club” and said paradise awaits those “killing the enemy of Islam.”

Warren Christopher Clark, 34, pleaded not guilty to the single charge of providing material support to the foreign terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Syria, where he was recently captured. The indictment covers Clark’s actions from 2011 —when he drew the attention of federal officials for his online statements of support to jihadist and terrorist actions — to 2015 when he slipped from Turkey into Syria “to help build the Islamic State,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark McIntyre said.

The federal detention hearing, during which the judge denied a request for Clark to be released to the custody of his parents, further filled in gaps of how the former substitute teacher found his way to Mosul in northern Iraq.

If convicted, Clark faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. His trial is scheduled for March in U.S. District Court in Galveston, in front of Judge George C. Hanks.

Clark entered his not guilty plea shackled at the waist in an orange jumpsuit, teetering on crutches as he kept his left leg elevated. And while U.S. Judge Magistrate Peter Bray declined the request for home confinement, he ordered the U.S. Marshal’s Service to honor Clark’s request from last week and take him to a doctor.

Testimony indicated that along the way from traveler to alleged jihadist, Clark communicated with a 17-year-old online who wished to join ISIS as a martyr, officials said. Clark offered to help the teen travel from Istanbul to Syria by bus, telling him “God willing you will be in the Islamic State soon.”

Defense attorney Mike Degeurin characterized Clark as a young man who went to learn more about other cultures and experience an Islamic-led government who got sucked into something horrendous. Degeurin began working with Clark’s family in February 2018 to secure his return, including cooperating with federal authorities.

Wednesday, Clark’s father, Warren Anthony Clark, testified he and his wife — both veterans and retired teachers —would assure for their son’s care and his compliance with court rules. Despite those assurances Bray declined to release him, calling the younger Clark’s acceptance of violence to advance Muslim extremism “extremely troubling.”

Prosecutors called a single witness, Sugar Land policeman Scott Sosa, the city’s liaison to the regional joint terrorism task force responsible for coordinating terror investigations locally. Sosa only learned of the case in the past week, he said, and most of his testimony was to relay investigatory work from FBI agents tracking Clark.

By 2011, Clark drew the attention of federal officials for statements online, specifically a YouTube channel called “jihadist fan club” where he said paradise awaits those “killing the enemy of Islam.”

Traveling abroad in 2013 and 2014, Clark was interviewed by federal investigators, where he denied he was moving to aid and abet terrorism. He traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2015, telling U.S. investigators he was moving to take a job with Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil conglomerate. Later that year, Aramco fired him for submitting fake pay stubs, Sosa said, and booked him return travel to America via Turkey.

On Aug. 8, 2015, Clark crossed into Syria where in emails to his family that federal officials received as part of a search warrant, he says he has moved into areas held by the Islamic State and attended both religious and military training.

In the correspondence, Clark repeatedly states it is his goal to help build an Islamic government, but he does not wish to fight for the cause. He told his sister in a September email he does not want to return to America, unless it conquers the Islamic State and he is forced back, or the Islamic State conquers America.

“I ultimately want to live in a Muslim country,” Sosa read from one of Clark’s emails.

Federal officials did not specify when it was obtained, but confirmed that a resume and cover letter matching Clark’s background and experience, but using the name Abu Muhammad al-Ameriki was discovered in Mosul. The cover letter indicated the applicant wished to teach English within the Islamic State.

Much of Clark’s life from late 2015 until he reappears in the custody of the Syrian Defense Forces in late December or early January remains unclear. Earlier reports indicated he was captured by Kurdish rebels on Jan. 6.

But at Wednesday’s federal hearing, officials did not reveal details how he came to be in U.S. custody, or when he was returned to Houston.

Federal officials offered no explanation for the gaps in the timeline.

While in custody, Clark said in an interview with NBC News that he went abroad out of a desire to understand more about Islamic culture, but he said he did not take up arms with the group. Clark said he had been imprisoned by ISIS police for not supporting the fight.

Reporter Brian Rogers contributed to this story.

dug.begley@chron.com

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