Abdirizak Jaji Raghe Wehelie worked as a contractor for the FBI, translating wiretapped conversations. Then, according to prosecutors in federal court in Alexandria, Va., he heard his own voice on the other end. A person suspected of helping someone else join the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab had left a message on Wehelie’s cellphone in December 2012.
Wehelie, 66, of Burke, Va., who authorities allege hid that link, is now accused of making false statements to law enforcement officials and obstructing a federal investigation. He was indicted in late 2017, when he was still living in the area. But he was not arrested until Saturday night, after returning to the country from nine months teaching at a university in Somalia, officials said.
Wehelie appeared in court Monday afternoon and was released on bond.
He is the third person in his immediate family to be publicly ensnared in a terrorism investigation. But defense attorney Nina Ginsberg said the case had no connection to Wehelie’s sons and that her client was not accused of any involvement in terrorist activity.
“There is no allegation than an investigation has been impeded in any way,” she said, or that there were any “national security consequences” to his conduct.
When Wehelie heard his own voice-mail message on the wiretap, he did not tell his superiors, according to the indictment unsealed Monday. Instead, he labeled himself in his FBI log as an “unidentified male.” He changed his voice-mail message so that he no longer identified himself by name.
In 2016 interviews with the FBI, Wehelie said he never had a conversation with the caller and received only one voice mail from him. He also claimed — falsely, according to prosecutors — that he had reported his relationship with the suspect to supervisors.
Eventually, Wehelie admitted that he spoke to the suspect in 2013 and 2014; according to the indictment, they talked about 10 times between November 2013 and April 2017. He also spent time at the man’s store and cafe, according to the indictment. Wehelie told the FBI that he and the suspect’s father were very close and that he viewed the suspect as an uncle.
The person the suspect allegedly helped travel to Somalia matches the description of Liban Mohamed, a Virginia cabdriver who fled the United States in 2013. He was detained in Somalia two years later.
Wehelie’s family, of Somali origin, has been in the crosshairs of counterterrorism investigators before. His son Yusuf Wehelie was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being caught in a sting operation moving guns for cash. During a year of surveillance, he had talked to an undercover FBI agent about attacking military recruits in Northern Virginia. He and his older brother, Yahya Wehelie, were held and interrogated in Egypt in 2010 on a trip back from Yemen. Yahya Wehelie was told that he was on a “no fly” list. Ginsberg, who also represented Yusuf Wehelie, said at his sentencing in 2017 that he was dealing with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from having been tortured by Egyptian police.
In 2010, when his two sons were in Egyptian custody, Abdirizak Wehelie and his wife expressed their patriotism for the United States and opposition to Islamic extremists at a news conference, noting that a third son served in Iraq and that members of their extended family worked for the Department of Homeland Security.
The FBI declined to comment on the case.