Accused of traveling to Syria to support terror group, returning to launch attacks in U.S.
A 23-year-old American pleaded not guilty in federal court Friday to charges accusing him of traveling to Syria to support an al Qaeda affiliate and returning to the U.S. with plans to launch a terrorist attack, his attorney said.
Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, who lived on Columbus’ west side after his family left Somalia years ago, trained with extremists in Syria last year as part of that country’s civil war before receiving instructions to attack police officers or military targets in the U.S., according to an indictment released Thursday. No such attack appears to have taken place.
Mr. Mohamud on Friday waived his right to a detention hearing, leaving him in federal custody, and a trial date was set for June 23, said his attorney, Sam Shamansky. Federal authorities recently handed over more than 1,000 pages of documents related to the case, Mr. Shamansky said.
On the steps of the courthouse after the hearing, Mr. Shamansky described the indictment against his client as full of “salacious detail” and “cherry-picked,” adding that it didn’t contain any allegations that Mr. Mohamud attempted to stockpile weapons or had a detailed plan of attack.
The case stands out among recent charges against Americans accused of trying to joinIslamic State or other extremist groups because the Justice Department says Mr. Mohamud actually got to Syria and received training in explosives, weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
In February last year, Mr. Mohamud, who is a native of Somalia, obtained his U.S. citizenship, according to the indictment, before sending in an application for a passport a week later.
In April 2014, Mr. Mohamud bought a one-way plane ticket to Athens, with a layover in Istanbul, but the indictment said that he never got on the flight to Greece, allegedly meeting up instead with men who took him to Syria. He returned to the U.S. in June.
In February this year, authorities became worried that Mr. Mohamud could try to leave Columbus or might pose a threat, so they moved quickly to arrest him on state terrorism charges, according to people familiar with the matter.
However, documents filed in connection with the case were vague about what exactly Mr. Mohamud was alleged to have done.
That gave federal investigators time to pursue other leads and gather evidence before presenting their case to a grand jury.
In federal court, Mr. Mohamud faces one charge of providing material support to terrorists, another of providing material support to the al-Qaeda affiliate known as Nusra Front, and a third of lying to federal agents. Each charge carries up to 15 years in prison in case of conviction.
Mr. Mohamud was joined in court Friday by his mother and his sister, a local college student, according to Mr. Shamansky. Mr. Mohamud also has a younger brother.
Mr. Shamansky described Mr. Mohamud and his family as close-knit and trying to make it in the U.S. after leaving a war-torn Somalia. Known by some people under the nickname Ayanle, Mr. Mohamud attended high school in Whitehall, a suburb east of Columbus, but left at age 18 in 2009 before graduating, according to a district official.
Mr. Mohamud worked in the Columbus area, according to Mr. Shamansky, and enjoyed playing basketball in his free time. A man who said that he knew Mr. Mohamud from a local Columbus mosque described him as a good soccer player and a generally quiet man who came to pray in the evening.
Under an initiative launched in 2004, Columbus, a city of about 820,000, has touted its international population and welcomed immigrants to help its economy grow.
“We have always had a leadership that embraces diversity,” said Napoleon Bell, executive director of the Columbus community relations commission and houses the New Americans Initiative. “The Somalis are part of the fabric of this city.”
Michael Curtin, an Ohio state representative, said that the absorption of Somali refugees has “largely gone without incident.”
But recently, “there is a lot of mistrust in the Muslim community” of law enforcement, said Marwan Mohammed, a 34-year-old physician from Columbus. Between midday prayers Friday outside a north Columbus mosque, he and others Muslims said they worry the case against Mr. Mohamud could unfairly tarnish their community, which has seen few accusations of violent religious extremism.
Somalis leaving from Minnesota to fight on behalf of extremist causes have received the most media attention, but Columbus has also experienced terrorism-related cases. A few Columbus-based Muslims have been convicted of conspiring with al-Qaida to plan attacks in the U.S.
Iyman Faris, a Pakistani illegal immigrant who became a truck driver in Columbus, traveled to Afghanistan in 2000 to meet with Osama bin Laden and scouted targets for terrorism, including the Brooklyn Bridge. He was sentenced to a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to providing material assistance to al-Qaeda.
Nuradin Abdi, a Somalian illegal immigrant, lied to immigration officials to obtain travel papers to reach a terrorist training camp in Africa. He had advocated blowing up an Ohio shopping mall. He was sentenced to prison in November 2007, and was deported to Somalia in November 2012 after completing his prison term in August that year.
—Miriam Jordan contributed to this article.