The post-9/11 life of an American charged with murder

The case of Sharif Mobley is seen by U.S. officials as an example of young, American-born Muslims turning to jihad. His defenders say he never conspired to commit terrorism.
By Peter Finn
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 8:36 PM

On the morning of Jan. 26, Sharif Mobley stepped out of his apartment in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to buy some cereal for his sleeping 3-year-old daughter. The young American from New Jersey was quickly surrounded by eight black-clad, masked operatives from the country's secret police. Mobley turned to run, but he was shot in the leg and bundled into the back of a white van. When Mobley shouted "I'm an American," he was hit in the face. As the van sped away, Mobley later told his lawyers, one of his Yemeni captors made a call. The man said only one word, in English: "Easy."

Eight months later, the 26-year-old is set to go on trial this month for killing a prison guard, a crime punishable by death. In Yemen, the condemned are executed in a public square with a single bullet to the heart.

U.S. officials see Mobley as one of a growing cadre of native-born Americans who are drawn to violent jihad. "This doesn't seem to be a case of the accidental extremist," said one U.S. official who would speak only on the condition of anonymity because the matter is before the courts in Yemen. "He sought out bad actors before leaving the United States and certainly joined up with terrorists after moving to Yemen. That includes, among other things, putting his ideas for terrorist attacks on the table."

Mobley's defenders acknowledge that he associated in Yemen with individuals hostile to the United States but say he never conspired to commit an act of terrorism. They say they believe that U.S. interrogators, trawling for intelligence, pushed Mobley into a moment of madness that allegedly resulted in the murder of one guard and the wounding of another.

"This is a man who had been kidnapped and shot, spent six weeks being variously shackled, blindfolded and beaten, and who was terrified that the same was awaiting his wife and two babies," said Cori Crider, one of Mobley's attorneys, who works with the London-based human rights group Reprieve and has met with Mobley in prison. "U.S. agents preyed on those fears."

This account of the coming-of-age of a young Muslim in the post-9/11 era is based on exclusive interviews with Mobley's father and wife; his lawyers; friends, relatives and former acquaintances; and with U.S. and Yemeni officials. It provides the first complete portrait of Mobley's journey to violent jihad and includes new details about his contacts with a radical cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, who is on a U.S. capture-or-kill list for his role in terrorist attacks. American investigators suspected that Mobley could lead them to Aulaqi.

The FBI declined to comment on the case or Crider's allegations. A spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington said his government would have no official comment.

Mobley's lawyers, who include counsel from a leading Yemeni human rights organization, note that Yemeni authorities have dropped all terrorism-related charges and moved Mobley's case into the criminal courts. Dismissing the U.S. allegation that Mobley actively plotted with a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, they say that at the first hint of trouble, Mobley sought to return to the United States.

"This is just a false excuse for a botched job," said Crider, referring to Mobley's arrest and interrogation. "If Sharif Mobley was plotting to hurt a single soul, why didn't the U.S. arrest him when he - repeatedly - presented himself at the U.S. Embassy, asking their help to see his family safely home."

A devout teenager

Mobley was the youngest of five children who were raised partly in a spacious home on five acres in the South Jersey farming community of Buena. His father, Charles, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., had joined the Nation of Islam in 1966. His mother, Cynthia, who was born in Philadelphia, converted when the couple married. Both sides of Mobley's family have deep roots in the United States.

When Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, the Mobleys gravitated to an orthodox Sunni branch of Islam, attending a largely African American mosque in Philadelphia. The family moved to New Jersey in 1983, shortly before Sharif was born, in January 1984. "Kids grow fast in the city," said Charles Mobley, a retired construction worker, explaining the decision to move out of Philadelphia.

Former students at Buena Regional High School remember Mobley as very religious, with a small circle of friends. "He was always devout. Always trying to convert friends, always being so literal to the point that even if he kissed a girl, he asked friends to whip him," said Roman Castro, a former classmate who was friends with Mobley in high school. "He was 100 percent into everything he did."

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