Federal officials yesterday accused a Somali man living in Ohio of plotting with al Qaeda terrorists to blow up a Columbus, Ohio-area shopping mall.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said that Nuradin M. Abdi, 32, a cell phone company employee in Columbus, was charged with conspiring with al Qaeda operatives, including Ohio truck driver Iyman Faris, who was convicted last year of plotting to sever cables on the Brooklyn Bridge.
A four-count indictment, unsealed yesterday in Ohio, said Abdi obtained and used fraudulent travel documents and conspired to provide material support to al Qaeda. Abdi, in custody since the day after Thanksgiving, had lost his political asylum status and was facing deportation that is now stayed by the indictment.
In court papers seeking his continued detention, prosecutors accused Abdi of traveling to Ethiopia in 1999 and 2000 for training in "radio usage, guns, guerrilla warfare, bombs" that he could use "in violent Jihadi conflicts overseas and any activities his al Qaeda co-conspirators might ask him to perform here in the United States."
"We know our enemies will go to great lengths to lie in wait and to achieve the death and destruction they desire," Ashcroft said. He renewed a warning he made earlier this month that "current credible intelligence indicates that al Qaeda wants to hit the United States and to hit us hard."
Douglas S. Weigle, Abdi's lawyer in earlier immigration proceedings, said he could not comment on the case because he is not certain whether he will be representing Abdi on the new charges.
Abdi was arrested shortly after authorities learned of his association with Faris and his alleged intentions last Nov. 28, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. Prosecutors have spent the past six months building a criminal case against him, officials said.
Faris pleaded guilty 13 months ago to providing material support to al Qaeda and was sentenced Oct. 29 to 20 years in prison. Authorities said Faris met with Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the chief al Qaeda strategist, to plot bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge and simultaneously derailing a train in Washington.
Court papers said that when Faris realized last year that security and the structure of the Brooklyn Bridge made that attack impossible, he informed al Qaeda by coded message: "The weather is too hot."
Faris, a Kashmiri-born naturalized U.S. citizen, provided al Qaeda information about ultralight aircraft and equipment for sabotaging railroad tracks and bridge cables, according to the Justice Department. He unsuccessfully sought to withdraw his guilty plea at the time of sentencing, saying what he had told the FBI was untrue.
"I never heard of any plans to bomb a shopping center -- it's news to me," said J. Frederick Sinclair, Faris's former lawyer. He said he believes the information about Abdi must be coming from other associates. "I'm assuming that someone in Ohio is providing that information," Sinclair said.
Public records show that Faris used a Columbus address belonging to relatives of Abdi, including Abdi's mother. Those relatives did not return calls seeking comment.
Abdi was associated with a cell phone business, called Cell-U-Com, officials said, that provided cell phones to Faris.
Officials said they are limited about what they can say publicly about Abdi, but any association with Faris would generate "grave concerns," said Michael J. Garcia, assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose agency investigated the case jointly with the FBI.
Garcia and Ashcroft said they believe the arrests of Abdi and Faris have mitigated the threat in Columbus.
Abdi came to the United States in June 1999 after gaining asylum status earlier that year. "The government is prepared to offer evidence that with the exception of some minor biographical data, every aspect of the asylum application submitted by the defendant was false," said the prosecutors' document seeking continued detention.
The indictment charges that on April 27, 1999, Abdi applied for travel documents from the U.S. government stating he intended to go to Germany and Saudi Arabia when he planned to travel to Ogaden, Ethiopia, for jihad training. When he returned in March 2000, Abdi reentered the United States from Africa using the asylum documents gained through fraud, according to the indictment. Faris picked him up from the airport in Columbus, according to the detention document.
Prosecutors allege that Abdi, Faris and other unnamed co-conspirators then plotted to blow up a Columbus-area mall and that Abdi was instructed in bomb-making by one of the co-conspirators. The charges against Abdi could bring 55 years in prison.
Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.