By Peter Finn
Sunday, September 5, 2010; A1
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."
Charles Mobley remembers him as deeply committed to his faith. "He was stronger into the religion than I was," his father said.
Mobley was also becoming more political. Castro, who enlisted in the military following graduation, said Mobley and some other friends from high school visited him in North Carolina on the July 4 weekend in 2003, before Castro left for Iraq. But the visit ended badly, and Mobley returned early and alone to New Jersey.
"He was very Sharif-esque; it was only a matter of time before he would get into political discussions and religious discussions, and arguments got heated," Castro said. "We had a falling out."
Mobley's father acknowledged the tension among the old school friends. "Sharif didn't believe in fighting in the war," he said. "He had the same view as Muhammad Ali had about fighting other people."
But if some of Mobley's friends saw increasing rigidity, his family and friends saw a much lighter side of his personality. "If he were in a classroom, he would be the class clown," said Zaki Bey, Mobley's brother-in-law. Bey recalled that once when he visited Mobley, his brother-in-law back-flipped off a second-story balcony and landed on his feet. "He was that kind of adventurous, goofball type of guy," Bey said.
After high school, Mobley's father got him a union card, and he got spot work as an unskilled laborer, including at nuclear power plants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Much of the early reporting of Mobley's arrest focused on his employment at the plants, suggesting that he might have had access to sensitive material.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has completed its review of the dates Mr. Mobley worked as a general laborer at several U.S. nuclear power plants, including the types of job duties he performed. To date, there has been no evidence of any security-related concerns or incidents related to his employment at these plants," said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC.
The early reports also erroneously said his family had immigrated from Somalia.Interest in Yemen
In 2004, Mobley made his first pilgrimage to Mecca. "You could see him maturing into adulthood, still personable, still humorous, but not giddy all the time," said Mervin Khalil Ghani, who owns a bookstore specializing in Islamic and African American literature in Philadelphia and who accompanied Mobley to Mecca.
A black belt in Taekwondo who had excelled in martial arts and wrestling in high school, Mobley lost his interest in competition after the pilgrimage. The many trophies he won in his youth still crowd a corner of his bedroom in his parents' house.
Mobley went on the hajj two more times as a guide with groups from the Philadelphia area. His religious observance became stricter.
Gregory Marisseau, who worked with Mobley, said his friend would always try to say his prayers at the mosque, including the first prayer before dawn.
Around this time, Castro returned from his tour in Iraq and ran into Mobley on the street. His old friend treated him with disdain, Castro said, calling him a "Muslim killer."
In the summer of 2005, Mobley was introduced to Nzinga Saba Islam, a Philadelphia native who had just graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls, and three months later they were married. The couple's first child, a girl, was born in January 2007.
In July 2007, the couple moved to Newark, Delaware, where Mobley began attending a mosque whose congregation was largely made up of immigrants, a community different from the mosques of his youth. Islam said the couple had talked for some time about moving to an Arab country to learn the language and deepen their knowledge of their religion. She said they began to consider moving to Yemen after striking up a friendship with a family from Yemen they met in Delaware.
They also contacted an American in Yemen whose teachings they had heard on religious CDs: Aulaqi.
Mobley's wife said that her husband e-mailed the cleric, seeking advice on where he should study in Yemen.
Aulaqi's CDs and tapes can be found in many Muslim homes, and in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks he seemed to be a moderate voice, appearing, for instance, on a video on washingtonpost.com to explain Ramadan. Islam said she and her husband knew of Aulaqi only as a popular preacher.
But by 2008, after leaving the United States and being jailed for a time in Yemen, Aulaqi was sounding a call for violent jihad, attacking the West and predicting a global clash between Muslims and non-believers. U.S. officials say they believe Mobley wanted to volunteer for the fight, and hid his true intent under the guise of attending language school in Yemen.Questioned by FBI agents
Mobley and his wife and daughter left for Yemen in July 2008, but didn't last long in the country. Islam was pregnant and experienced complications. She said her husband met with Aulaqi to discuss where she might get medical care. In October, following Islam's surgery for an ectopic pregnancy, the couple returned to the United States.
Against the wishes of their families, they were determined to go back to Yemen.
"We didn't start what we intended to do. We said, 'let's try one more time,' " said Islam, 22, who wears pastel scarves to cover her hair but does not veil her face. "Our parents wanted to kill us. They didn't want us to go."
In December, the couple made it back to Yemen, and Islam became pregnant again. She spent much of the year on bed rest, and in November 2009 gave birth to their son.
The U.S. official said that Mobley only infrequently attended language class through 2009 and was instead "doing things like facilitating the movement of extremists to Yemen on behalf of" al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
On Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian passenger allegedly attempted to down a U.S. airliner by igniting explosives hidden in his underwear, an attack that was quickly traced to the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
Mobley's wife said that the atmosphere in the country soured rapidly for the couple, and that they resolved to go home as quickly as possible. They made an appointment for early February to get a passport for the newborn. Mobley also went to the U.S. Embassy to get extra pages in his passport for an exit visa, and was interviewed by FBI agents in the legal attache's office during several visits.
A second U.S. official, who also insisted on anonymity to discuss an open case, said that Mobley was "circular" and "uncooperative" when he met with the FBI.
"He got himself into this," the official said. "He's a very difficult guy who creates most of his own problems."
Islam said that her husband felt he was being followed, and soon enough she also saw surveillance by unknown Yemenis. "We were scared," she said. "We said, 'let's just go home.' "
Until they could get on a plane out of Yemen, they decided not to leave their apartment except to go to the embassy or get food.Frightened for his family
After being shot during his arrest by members of Yemen's Political Security Organization, Mobley was taken to a secure, third-floor ward of a hospital that a German company runs for Yemen's Interior Ministry. Mobley's femur was shattered, and doctors operated on his leg on Jan. 26, according to a letter the hospital sent to Mobley's lawyers.
Mobley asked to speak to his wife and the U.S. Embassy, Crider, one of his attorneys, said. His request was ignored, and after four days, he said he would stop eating until someone came to help him.
That is when two U.S. agents showed up, according to Crider. They introduced themselves as Matt from the FBI and Khan from the Department of Defense. And over the next several weeks, they questioned Mobley six times. One or two Yemenis were always in the room, but took almost no part in the questioning, Crider said.
They had one major focus. "Aulaqi. You help us find him, and you'll go home," said Crider, describing the interrogations. She said Mobley said he had spoken to Aulaqi, but didn't know where he was and so was unable to help.
"They held up the keys to his house in front of his face," Crider said. "They told him his wife would go to prison and the kids would go to an orphanage. He was terrified that she was going to be assaulted."
When Mobley did not come home with the cereal, his wife grew frantic. She called the U.S. Embassy, where officials told her to go to her local police station and report him missing. That night, she recalled, four Yemeni men in suits and about 15 soldiers searched the couple's apartment, taking away their computer. Islam said she saw one of the men in suits the next morning at the U.S. Embassy, wearing a visitor's badge. She said one U.S. official dismissed her concerns about the search.
"You should be used to that. You're from Philly," he told her.
Islam said she pressed U.S. officials for information for weeks until family members decided she should bring the children home.
After three to four weeks, Mobley's Yemeni captors told him he would be moved to a prison. On the day he was transferred, a catheter was removed, but badly, and Mobley started to bleed again during the transport.
"When they unload him, he falls, and they kick him and call him a dog," Crider said. "They drag him down some stairs and toss him on a table, and he loses consciousness."
After just a few hours in the prison, she said, the profusely bleeding Mobley was moved to a general hospital.
There his treatment improved. He wasn't always blindfolded and shackled, and the guards, some of whom seemed to warm to him, would put their guns down in the room.
The two U.S. agents also visited. But after weeks of questioning, they appeared frustrated with Mobley, repeating the suggestion that his wife could end up in prison but getting nowhere.
"His behavior was not very helpful to his cause," said the second U.S. official.
"I think at that point the plan was to wait for him to be deported," Crider said. "They realized he was a dead end."
On the evening of March 6, Mobley and his guards watched the Mel Gibson movie "Braveheart," Crider said. In one scene, a soldier attempts to rape the wife of the character played by Gibson, and the woman is later executed. The events help propel the Gibson character into a vengeful rampage against his oppressors.
Mobley "is going crazy about his family," Crider said. "He is begging everyone to call his family."
The next day, March 7, according to Yemeni officials, Mobley grabbed a gun and killed a guard in an unsuccessful attempt to free himself. A second guard was wounded.
What no one had told Mobley was that his wife and two children had left for the United States 72 hours earlier.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.