N.C. man sentenced for immigration fraud

RALEIGH – Robert J. Higdon Jr., United States Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, announced that Wednesday, in federal court, Houcine Ghoul was sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge James C Dever III to serve 24 months imprisonment, followed by deportation, for attempted unlawful procurement of naturalization and making a false statements on his tax return.

Ghoul pleaded guilty to these charges on Nov. 13, 2017.

Ghoul, a citizen 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.

The investigation into Ghoul’s conduct began in April 2014 when he posted a photo online that explicitly displayed support for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a designated foreign terrorist organization. This photo displayed an individual holding a sign with the Arabic phrase, “The victory of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” and then below this in English was written, “ISIS,” and “N. Carolina, USA.” The investigation later discovered that the individual holding the sign was merely an unwitting participant asked to hold the sign while Ghoul posed him in order to take the photo.

The photo later appeared in an online propaganda video posted by others in an attempt to display the worldwide support for ISIS. Though he did not use his actual name or identity for the online accounts he used in regard to such conduct, Ghoul provided a self-description within the account: “Extremist, terrorist, tough, brain-washed, radical, I love explosions, booby trapping, beheading the enemy, and am among the supporters of establishing the religion with the sword.”

In December 2014, Ghoul submitted an application for U.S. citizenship, and, in February 2017, he was interviewed in relation to his application. During this interview, Ghoul made a number of false statements. He falsely claimed that he had in no way associated with or been a member of any terrorist organization; that he had never advocated for the overthrow of a government; that he had never committed any offenses for which he had not been arrested; that he had not married someone for the purpose of obtaining an immigration benefit; and that he had not made other misrepresentations in order to obtain public benefits.

All of these statements were false because Ghoul had sworn allegiance to ISIS and had been an active supporter of ISIS both online and in person, had explicitly advocated for the overthrow of the United States through violence, had unlawfully assisted in the sale of narcotics, had entered into a sham marriage for the sole purpose of obtaining U.S. citizenship, and had assisted in providing lies to the State of North Carolina in order to obtain childcare benefits.

Also, in 2015 and 2016, Ghoul filed tax returns in which he underreported his income by at least $90,000, thereby avoiding the payment of income tax.

Mr. Higdon complimented law enforcement’s tireless efforts.

“Without the constant vigilance of our law enforcement partners, insidious threats such as this would never come to light until too late,” he said. “Our country, our state, and every tax-paying citizen has been a victim of this defendant’s conduct. Thankfully, further victimization has come to an end and his violent rhetoric will no longer be a threat hiding within the Eastern District of North Carolina.”

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Kellhofer represented the government in this case.