A Northern Virginia man who fled the United States more than two years ago and was recently placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list is in the custody of the Somali government, U.S. officials said.
Liban Haji Mohamed, 29, was detained shortly after prosecutors unsealed a warrant for his arrest and the FBI added him to the wanted list in late January. It is unclear how he was taken into custody or how soon he could be brought back to the United States.
The former cabdriver is charged with providing material support and resources to al-
Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization allied with al-Qaeda. He is suspected of having an operational role in al-Shabab and of trying to recruit people to join the group.
When FBI officials announced his inclusion on the most-wanted list, they said Mohamed was “an asset to his terrorist associates who might plot attacks on U.S. soil.” Officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, noted that he had detailed knowledge of potential targets in Washington.
The FBI had offered $50,000 for information leading to his arrest and conviction and launched a significant online campaign to find him.
An attorney for Mohamed’s family was not immediately available for comment. The attorney, Gadeir Abbas, has said previously that the family is skeptical of the charges, noting that Mohamed has relatives who were killed or captured by al-Shabab.
Officials said efforts were being made to bring Mohamed back to Virginia, though there are significant logistical and diplomatic challenges. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Somalia.
U.S. law enforcement had been attempting to track Mohamed, a naturalized U.S. citizen, before he slipped out of the country and into Mexico on July 12, 2012. The case had frustrated FBI agents who strongly believed Mohamed should have been charged with material support of terrorism while he was living in Fairfax County.
Some federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia were willing to do so, though they were overruled by others at the Justice Department, officials said.
Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the Justice Department.
Mohamed’s family still lives in Northern Virginia, and his brother, Gulet Mohamed, is pursuing an unrelated civil lawsuit against the FBI. The suit stems from a 2010 incident in which Mohamed, then 19, was detained and said he was tortured by authorities in Kuwait after his inclusion on a no-fly list kept him from traveling home to the United States.
Officials said Liban Mohamed first came to the FBI’s attention with the arrest of Zachary Adam Chesser, the now 25-year-old Virginian who became enthralled with extremist Islamist views as a young man and ultimately tried to join al-Shabab. The FBI has said Chesser and Mohamed were close associates.
Chesser pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and was sentenced in 2011 to 25 years in prison. He wrote in a letter to the court that he was “determined to cooperate” with investigators.
The FBI had Mohamed under intensive surveillance for months, officials said, and he was added to the no-fly list. A U.S. official said he was in contact with “significant folks overseas.”
Agents suspected that he intended to travel to Texas, cross the border into Mexico and fly to Africa to possibly join al-Shabab, current and former U.S. officials said. Inside the Justice Department, officials debated whether to preempt those plans by charging him with material support before he left. Such a charge would have required the approval of the department’s National Security Division.
Top officials at the NSD and the FBI decided there wasn’t enough evidence. “His intentions weren’t clear,” a U.S. official said.
Instead, FBI agents and prosecutors developed a plan that involved arresting Mohamed just before he walked into Mexico.
“They needed a very clear expression of intent,” the official said. “And why and where he was going and an overt act of travel.”
The official added that Mohamed was “talking about it but needed to show it.”
Mohamed became suspicious, officials said, managed to elude FBI surveillance and made his way to Texas undetected. Authorities realized he had left the country after he was gone.
Abbas, the family lawyer, has said that to his knowledge, Mohamed’s relatives had not had any contact with him since the summer of 2012.
Officials are hopeful that the Somali government will expel Mohamed.