Terrorists in the coffee Shop
Journalist Andrew Welsh-Huggins tells the story of Somali immigrant Nuradin Abdi, one of three Columbus friends who became entangled in the federal governmentâ€™s anti-terrorism campaign after the 9/11 attacks.
Courtesy Swallow Press/Ohio University Press
Until 2003, terrorism was something that unfolded in other American cities and abroad—certainly not in Columbus. But that June, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft shattered the city’s innocence with the news that an alleged plot had been hatched right here in Central Ohio. Similar announcements followed as authorities discovered a trio of schemes that began during a conversation at a coffee shop in Upper Arlington.
It was still dark when Nuradin Mahamoud Abdi stepped outside his apartment off Tamarack Boulevard on the north side of Columbus around 6 am Nov. 28, 2003. It was Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest days of the holiday shopping season. Many others who were awake and leaving their houses at the same predawn hour were headed toward the malls and big-box stores open hours early to accommodate the traditional Black Friday shoppers.
As a Muslim, Abdi had little reason to care about the frenzy of gift giving leading up to Christmas. Keys in hand, the Somali immigrant was still in his nightclothes, going out to warm up his car before leaving for early morning prayers at Masjid Ibn Taymia, a Mock Road mosque catering to the city’s large Somali population. After that, it was off to work at his cellphone store in a small mall about a mile away. The 31-year-old Abdi had a lot on his mind as he opened the glass door of his apartment building, stepped under a red awning and walked into the chilly air. He and his wife, Safia Muse, had two young children and a third on the way. He was working long hours at the store he’d opened just two months earlier, hoping to get it off the ground. His goal was to save enough money to buy a house within the next two years. His mother, two brothers and a sister also lived in Columbus, and the city, with its solid economy and Somali population second only to that of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, was the place Abdi called home. Although he’d traveled out of the country in recent years, he told anyone who asked that he had no plans to leave Ohio. In any case, it wasn’t as if his homeland, in its second decade without a functioning government, had much to offer a young entrepreneur.
Suddenly, from the dark, someone called Abdi’s name. He looked over, and a man approached. He said his name was John Corbin and that he was an FBI agent. He showed Abdi his badge and asked him to wait a few minutes. While they stood there, Corbin made a call on his cellphone. “I have Abdi,” he told the person on the other end. “He’s standing with me here.” The two waited for several minutes until at least five cars pulled up. Two men got out and began to search Abdi. They removed his wallet and the other contents of his pockets, then handcuffed him. Richard Wilkens, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement resident agent-in-charge for Columbus, told Abdi they had to check whether he had a bomb in his possession. He didn’t. In his wallet, agents found a will, written in Arabic, that referred in part to his intent to travel to conflict zones in Afghanistan.
A second ICE agent, Robert Medellin, told Abdi he was being arrested for violating federal immigration laws. When Abdi asked what type of violation, he got a curt reply: “You will know about it.” Another FBI agent, Stephen Flowers, then asked Abdi for permission to search his apartment. One thing was clear: It looked as if Abdi wasn’t going to make it to morning prayers.
After a few minutes, agents bundled Abdi into an SUV and drove to FBI headquarters on the 10th floor of a building in the Brewery District just south of downtown. He was taken to a room for questioning, accompanied by Medellin and FBI agents. At 7:42 am, he signed a form waiving his Miranda rights. Medellin took the lead in the interview, telling Abdi he’d committed a lot of immigration violations and the only way to help himself was to cooperate with the FBI. The agents’ questions were numerous: Tell us about your background, your family here in Columbus, your travels abroad since you first came to the United States. Do you know of any threats or planned attacks against the United States or its allies? Do you remember a meeting FBI agents had with you last spring, when we discussed something a friend of yours—a man named Iyman Faris—had said about you? A statement he’d attributed to you?
The questioning lasted for hours. Although the agents told Abdi he’d violated federal immigration laws, they didn’t explain those violations or show him any documents detailing their allegations. Later that day, Abdi was transferred to the Kenton County Detention Center in Covington, Kentucky, across the river from the Cincinnati headquarters of the FBI’s southern Ohio division. Around noon, Medellin brought Abdi’s lunch. He tried to reason with the prisoner. He’d been an immigration officer for 27 years. He’d seen cases like this before. Medellin had observed Abdi’s children at the apartment that morning; if he wanted to be with them, he told Abdi, he needed to cooperate. “What did I do?” Abdi asked. Medellin repeated he’d committed many violations.
“Can I see them?” Abdi asked.
“You are going to see them,” Medellin said, before leaving him alone with his lunch.
Later that day, Abdi placed 10 collect phone calls from jail, trying unsuccessfully to reach his family and a friend.
The questioning continued the next day, through the morning and afternoon, and well into the evening. Agents had a lot of information about Abdi, they reminded him, again and again, and he wasn’t telling them what they needed to know.
At last Abdi said, “What are you looking for?”
Medellin glanced at Wilkens, then looked back at Abdi.
“We want to know information about Iyman Faris,” he said.
Abdi countered by telling them he hadn’t been brought in to talk about Faris, a friend of his from another mosque, and asked again what immigration violations he’d committed. He wanted to phone his wife to let her know he was all right, but the agents wouldn’t let him place the call.
The timing of Abdi’s apprehension was puzzling. But Abdi couldn’t have been entirely surprised by this encounter. Of course he remembered their previous meeting. It had been April 2 when agents visited his cellphone store and asked him about conversations he’d had with Faris. And Faris, Abdi well knew, was in a lot of trouble with the government. Big trouble. But what did that have to do with him? He’d already disavowed the things the agents said he and Faris had talked about. He was a Muslim, he told them. Our faith forbids us from harming anyone. Back in April, he’d even allowed the agents to search his apartment, and they’d found nothing. He’d produced a valid immigration document and explained how he had come to the United States five years earlier after being smuggled through Mexico. The agents had dutifully noted all this and gone on their way.
But that was then: Nearly eight months later, something had changed. And the hours of questioning were starting to wear Abdi down.
It had been a little more than a year earlier when Abdi sat down at the Caribou coffee shop on Northwest Boulevard in Upper Arlington with two friends from the Omar Ibnelkhttab mosque, a converted Jehovah’s Witness Hall on Riverview Drive near the Ohio State campus. Each man had a different story bringing him to the coffee shop that day.
Abdi had been born in 1972 in Somalia, but grew up mostly in the United Arab Emirates where his family moved because of increasing political tensions in their home country. As Somalia disintegrated into civil war in the 1990s, Abdi’s extended family, like thousands of other Somalis, immigrated to the United States. Abdi arrived in Columbus in 1998 and went to work as a cellphone salesman before opening his own store.
Iyman Faris, 33, grew up in Pakistan and as a young man had fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against occupying Soviet troops. Faris came to Columbus in 1994, married a local American woman, earned a trucker’s license and hauled goods cross-country when he wasn’t hanging around the couple’s Linden-area home.
Christopher Paul, 38, was born and raised in Worthington, the youngest of six children, and graduated from what was then Worthington High School (now Thomas Worthington) in 1984. He attended Ohio State for a time and while there converted to Islam. Born Paul Kenyatta Laws, he changed his name twice, first to Abdulmalek Kenyatta, then to Christopher Paul, for reasons that were never fully explained. Later, Paul traveled abroad extensively, including Afghanistan, the Balkans and Germany.
By the time of their sit-down at Caribou in August 2002, authorities say, each man had independently consorted with terrorists overseas. That summer day they gathered not as an organized cell, but as three individuals with their own dark secrets who each harbored anger at the United States over the war in Afghanistan and the extent of civilian casualties. They tossed around ideas for acts of revenge over $14 worth of Caribou drinks, then went on their way and continued to meet and talk over the next few weeks and months between their family and work responsibilities.
On March 19, 2003, acting on information gleaned from the recent arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and other investigations, FBI agents approached Faris in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Cincinnati, where he was checking on a friend in custody for immigration violations. During interviews over the next several weeks, Faris told investigators about Abdi and the coffee shop conversation. For Faris’s part, he’d thrown out the possibility of blowing up the Hoover Dam that day, an idea the others agreed could cause widespread damage. But Faris told the FBI it was Abdi who suggested a terrorist attack as close to home as possible. He proposed blowing up a shopping mall.
Agents went immediately to malls in the area, including Polaris, where rumors of a terrorist threat spread and security was tightened. Over the next few weeks, agents secretly descended on malls throughout the Columbus area in the middle of the night with bomb-sniffing dogs and thoroughly searched the facilities. The information from Faris was vague and no single mall was ever identified. But the government wasn’t taking any chances.
In June, after the FBI formally opened an investigation into Abdi, agents began following him and tracking his phone conversations. By November, they had confirmed calls to as many as 40 people the government associated with terrorism suspects. To the agents assigned to Abdi, he seemed to behave like someone with something to hide; his erratic driving, including U-turns and random stops, suggested someone taking counter-surveillance measures. Abdi treated it more like a joke, priding himself on the day agents lost him because he had to drive his sister’s car. He kept on with his life. On Sept.17, he and a cousin co-signed papers to incorporate Abdi’s cellphone store, Cell Station, in the Global Mall off Morse Road—an indoor conglomeration of clothing stores, a restaurant, a money-transfer business and other outlets—tucked between an Old Time Pottery store on one side and a Waterbeds ’n Stuff on the other.
It was a surreal standoff. Abdi, knowing full well he was in the government’s crosshairs—especially since Faris’s meetings with the FBI—tried to proceed as if nothing were wrong. On Nov. 22, a Saturday, Abdi went to the Ibn Taymia mosque where he sneaked a look at his cellphone to see how Ohio State was doing in the Michigan game. Meanwhile, FBI case agent Stephen Flowers, convinced Abdi was on the cusp of a horrifying attack, worked behind the scenes to find a way to arrest the Somali. Eventually, the FBI and ICE concluded Abdi was a threat to national security and should be arrested. The agencies agreed the best approach was to make the arrest based on violations of federal immigration laws. But FBI and ICE lawyers in Washington, D.C., then spent nearly a month debating what information about Abdi was, as U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley later quipped, “classified, unclassified, declassified or about to be declassified.”
The debate reached a fever pitch in the days before Thanksgiving. The last thing anyone wanted was a high-profile arrest in a crowded mall parking lot as Christmas shoppers streamed into stores. Complicating matters, the allegations against Abdi involved a falsified application for political asylum. Arresting a political refugee was rare and ran contrary to America’s reputation as a harbor for the persecuted. More practically, what would happen if Abdi refused to talk? They could deport him, but where? Back to Somalia, a lawless land with no government, where he might face torture or worse? For Abdi’s part, if he was concerned about minimizing guilt by association, he didn’t show it. On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, he loaned Christopher Paul $250 to buy something for Paul’s wife.
On Thanksgiving Day, Kevin Cornelius, supervisor of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force in Columbus, spent much of the afternoon in a back room at his in-laws’ house, glued to a cellphone. Several FBI agents and other law-enforcement officers came into the FBI Columbus office to work the phones on the holiday. Finally, late in the afternoon, the call came: ICE was granting authority to take Abdi into custody even though authorities still didn’t have an administrative arrest warrant.
After the long debate over whether to pick up Abdi, the operation nearly fell through the next morning. The team of arresting agents, basing their movements on Abdi’s normal routine, was still driving to the apartment complex on the city’s north side when Abdi left his home and headed for his car. Only special agent John Corbin was present; on his own, he stopped Abdi.
Almost two days had passed in the Kenton County Detention Center, and Abdi still hadn’t contacted his family. Finally, on that Sunday, Abdi relented and told investigators things they appeared to want to hear.
He acknowledged the discussion Faris had first tipped them to, but with a correction: The talk was of opening fire in a mall with an AK-47, he said, not blowing it up. He also told them additional details about his immigration status. The interrogation went on as agents moved him from his cell to an office for questioning and back again. Late that night, at 10:15 pm, agents took an affidavit from Abdi, which he signed.
The following day, at 5:35 pm, almost 56 hours after he’d first been taken into custody outside the Northland Arms apartment building, Abdi was served with an arrest warrant by ICE agent Robert Medellin. At the same moment, Abdi was handed a notice that the government intended to terminate his asylum status in the United States.
As Abdi sat in jail contemplating the tumultuous past three days, his ordeal was still far from over. But the bulk of the government’s case against him was now complete.
It took a few years, but eventually all three men who had met at Caribou that summer day were arrested, prosecuted and convicted. Faris pleaded guilty in May 2003 to plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge at the behest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, whom Faris had met on trips to Afghanistan in 2000 and again in 2002. After fighting the charges against him for nearly four years, Abdi changed his mind and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists in July 2007; his lawyer said he didn’t believe it was possible for Abdi to face an impartial jury in post-9/11 America. Paul, arrested in April 2007, refused to challenge the government’s case and, after a few desultory court filings, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction in 2008.
Today, in the nation’s most secure federal prison in Florence, Colorado, Faris is serving a 20-year sentence, spending 23 hours a day in a segregated cell. Paul has settled into his 20-year term in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Abdi, sentenced to 10 years, sees family members who visit him in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, where he contemplates his forced return to his homeland sometime in 2012. He is assigned to Marion’s Communications Management Unit, which limits inmates’ access to the outside world and other prisoners. Abdi can’t have visits where he’s in the same room with a relative, and those visits he is allowed are limited to a total of eight hours a month. He’s restricted to two 15-minute phone calls a week, which must be in English.
Abdi is resigned to his situation, rarely complaining about the restrictions while hoping they ease. He made brief comments about his case in a fleeting electronic correspondence through CorrLinks, an electronic communication system for federal inmates. “I don’t know what benefit it will give me 2 give U my permission 2 look 4 my case with the FBI,” he wrote on Dec. 4, 2009. “Also how pious U gonna B or R U going to present the story of the government alone or U want 2 know my side.”
His wife, Safia, still hasn’t told her young children the whereabouts of their father. In response to their frequent questions, she explains he is working and will rejoin them eventually. Abdi carries on the charade through phone calls and electronic messages, including occasional photographs. He had one taken by a prison wall that didn’t reveal where he was. “I don’t think he’s happy here,” his 6-year-old son said when he saw the picture.
HATRED AT HOME: AL QAIDA ON TRIAL IN THE AMERICAN MIDWEST, BY ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS. PUBLISHED BY SWALLOW PRESS/OHIO UNIVERSITY PRESS. © 2011. BASED IN COLUMBUS, WELSH-HUGGINS IS A LEGAL AFFAIRS REPORTER FOR THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.