Why Sharif Mobley is to be tried in Yemen – and what it means for American Muslims

US interest in the case of Sharif Mobley, who was set to be tried today, illustrates broader concern about American Muslims going abroad to train with militants.

American Sharif Mobley faces trial in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa
Roman Castro/AP/File
American Sharif Mobley (from a 2002 photo) faces trial in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, where he is charged with killing a security official. Mr. Mobley, who once worked at a US nuclear facility, had drawn scrutiny in Yemen from US officials.

It's like the plot of an international thriller: American man sentenced to death by firing squad in an authoritarian country on the other side of the world. But for 26-year-old New Jersey native Sharif Mobley, this plotline is far from fiction.

A Muslim living with his American wife and their two children in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, Mr. Mobley was set to be tried today on charges of killing a state security officer – a crime for which he could be sentenced to death. But due to the fact that no one arranged translation services for Mobley, who does not speak Arabic, the trial was postponed two weeks.

Mobley was arrested in a January security operation targeting suspected Al Qaeda operatives, during which the Yemeni police shot him in the leg. While recovering, US officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Defense questioned him about ties to Al Qaeda and the whereabouts of Anwar al-Awlaki, according to Mobley's lawyer, Cori Crider, who works for Reprieve, a London-based organization that opposes the death penalty.

Mr. Awlaki, an imam, is an American of Yemeni descent who is both a recruiter and propagandist for Al Qaeda, and is believed to have inspired the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre.

Ms. Crider denies that Mobley is tied to Al Qaeda or its branch in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But she told the Monitor that in a "moment of madness," after weeks of abuse and interrogation over alleged connections to Awlaki and AQAP, Mobley seized an opportunity to try to escape and, in the process, fatally shot the Yemeni officer.

State Department: Americans not immune to Al Qaeda ideology

Mobley's case has put his situation in the spotlight. But the US interest in this American Muslim is tied to what appears to be the growing trend of Western Muslims traveling to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen to train with militants and, in some cases, carry out attacks against US forces and their allies.

In recent weeks, attacks in Yemen attributed to AQAP have been on the rise. An Oct. 6 attack on a vehicle carrying British diplomats in Sanaa, for example, had all the markings of an Al Qaeda plot. The uptick underscores the increasing threat posed by the terrorist network in Yemen, which officials worry will worsen if more foreigners are lured here.

"We've learned something else important this year: The assumption that Americans have some special immunity to Al Qaeda's ideology has been dispelled," said a State Department official in an e-mail.

Awlaki's 'cult of personality'

For years, Yemen has been a popular destination for Western-born Muslims to study Arabic and religion. Some, however, end up adopting radical ideology. One Yemen expert, Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University in New Jersey, points to what he calls a "funnel factor," with foreigners in Yemen becoming involved with radical Islam and then directed to Al Qaeda recruiters.

Umar Faruq Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian Arabic student who studied in Sanaa, may be one example. He attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane last Christmas and was alledgedly trained by Awlaki.

Ayesh Awas, an Al Qaeda researcher at the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa, says Awlaki's cult of personality draws sympathizers to Yemen. Mobley is thought to have met Awlaki once and kept in contact with the imam.

Why Mobley was arrested

A Yemeni official briefed on security procedures but not authorized to speak to the press said that Mobley was arrested in an operation targeting suspicious foreign nationals.

"[The United States and European Union] governments advised Yemeni authorities to strengthen background checks on visa applicants to ensure Westerners are not joining the ranks of Al Qaeda," said the official. "Now, foreign students must get approval from security authorities prior to them receiving student visas."

Attorney Crider says, "Intelligence services in America are under intense pressure to do something about Yemen – and Mobley fit the profile [of someone who would join an extremist group]." She says there is no evidence suggesting Mobley was planning to join AQAP, and that her client was caught in a difficult situation and made a mistake by attempting to escape and killing the officer.

The National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedom in Yemen says at least 20 foreign-born Muslims have been deported from Yemen in 2010. No evidence suggests any of them had joined Al Qaeda, says Khaled al-Anisi, the group's director.

"This is part of a larger plan to put preemptive pressure on American Muslims who come to the Arab world," says Mr. Anisi. "Now there will be many American Muslims who will think not to come to Yemen to face the same problem as Mobley."

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