Before the recent attack at Ohio State University, federal agents arrested another Columbus man.
Before the recent attack at Ohio State University, federal agents arrested another Columbus man, claiming he had his own designs on destruction. A chilling account of the case leading up to his trial.
Dressed in a gray T-shirt and plaid shorts, Abdi Mohamud stood outside the Columbus North Side shooting range in a close circle with three friends. He clasped his hands together in front of him, elbows bent. This, he seemed to be demonstrating, is how you shoot a pistol.
That image—taken from the security cameras at LEPD Firearms & Range on Bethel Road—hangs inside the range on what's known as the Wall of Shame: nine photos of nine individuals charged with criminal offenses after visiting the range. Mohamud's photo is the only one with an accompanying newspaper story explaining his charge: terrorism.
The day that photo was taken, Sept. 5, 2014, must seem like ages ago to Mohamud, 25, a former Whitehall-Yearling High School student. Just five months later, on Feb. 21, 2015, he was arrested. Authorities say Mohamud was communicating with a Middle Eastern terrorist group, developing a plot to attack U.S. troops at a stateside military base, a U.S. prison or to gun down a police officer. He's been sitting in a Franklin County jail cell for nearly two years since.
Authorities believe that Mohamud was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born al-Qaida leader in Yemen who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. The FBI also believes al-Awlaki might have inspired Abdul Razak Ali Artan to terrorize the Ohio State University campus on Nov. 28. Artan drove a car into a crowd of students and faculty and then jumped out and slashed several people with a kitchen knife before an OSU police officer shot and killed him. Artan, a Somali-born man who had moved to Columbus in 2014 with his family, injured 11 people.
Long before Artan's acts brought nationwide attention to Columbus, Mohamud's story generated its own headlines when he appeared in U.S. District Court in Columbus on April 17, 2015, and was charged with three federal counts: helping terrorists, helping terrorist organizations and lying to federal investigators. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges as his mother and sister sat quietly behind him in the federal courtroom. Federal investigators say the slightly built, 6-feet-1-inch Mohamud, a Somali native known as “Bones” to some, had by then already traveled to Syria where he trained to fight for Nusra Front, a terrorist group formed by al-Qaida. A cleric with the group sent him back to the United States to commit an act of terror on American soil, according to the indictment against him. He had allegedly become, in the parlance of national security, a homegrown violent extremist—someone who travels overseas for training and then returns home to kill.
Robert Schmidt remembers Mohamud differently. As an assistant principal at Whitehall-Yearling when Mohamud was a student from August 2005 through August 2009, Schmidt says Mohamud occasionally landed in his office, but usually for mouthing off. “Often I'd have to say: ‘Don't talk like that. Knock it off,' ” Schmidt says. “Then he'd just clam up. He didn't apologize or anything, and he was not very cooperative. He thought he had more privilege than some and always made sure you knew he was his own man; that he didn't have to listen to you.”
But Schmidt says he doesn't remember Mohamud ever threatening anyone or bringing a weapon to school. “I would never describe him as a troublemaker. He certainly wasn't one of the most difficult.”
Although Mohamud is a Muslim, he didn't ask for a quiet place to pray at the school during the holy month of Ramadan as some devout Muslim students at Whitehall-Yearling did. He loved to play basketball, but didn't play for the school or seem interested in any school activities, Schmidt says. He dropped out short of graduating. “He had friends, but not a close group. I think he was not connected here. He was disassociated,” Schmidt says, “which would make him fresh meat for what he got into.”
How Mohamud moved from being a disinterested high school student to allegedly engaging with a terrorist faction is unclear. Federal prosecutors and investigators won't discuss the details of Mohamud's case while it's still pending. He's been scheduled for trial several times, but each time both sides agreed to a postponement. In late September, U.S. District Judge James L. Graham set a new trial for July 10, 2017. Mohamud faces up to 15 years in prison on each of the terrorist charges and up to eight years in prison on the false-statements charge. Many of the court documents related to the case remain under federal seal. But those in the public record reveal telling conversations between Mohamud and a friend, identified only as “Unnamed Person No. 1,” and online conversations with his brother, Abdifatah Hasan Aden.
A visit to the Middle East
Authorities say Mohamud's shift toward extremism began with his older brother. Aden was born in Somalia on March 1, 1987, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in January 2006. He lived in the Columbus area from at least 2005 to May 2013, court documents say, when he left for Saudi Arabia before taking up arms for the terrorist Nusrah Front in Syria. Nusrah recruits fighters from around the world, including Westerners, to attack Syrian targets and seize Syrian territory in its mission to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Aden telegraphed his interest in al-Qaida through his Facebook page, where he was known as “Abdifatah SeekTruth Aden.” In the seven months prior to leaving for Saudi Arabia, he posted 17 links to videos associated with the dead al-Qaida senior leader Anwar al-Awlaki. While in Syria, Aden posted at least one violent jihadist video and a message declaring that fighting there was part of his Islamic duty, as well as a call to help those engaged in jihad in Homs, Syria, known as the capital of the revolution.
Shortly after Aden began fighting in Syria, Mohamud began praising his brother's efforts and proclaiming he wanted to join him “in the high ranks as a Mujahid” (one engaged in jihad or holy war), according to online messages unveiled by the FBI. By January 2014, Mohamud was formulating plans. He became a U.S. citizen a month later and obtained a passport. Court documents show he told Unnamed Person No. 1 that he hoped to join an overseas group and kill U.S. allies on the battlefield in Syria. He said he would buy an iPad before he went and sell it in Turkey to raise money for Aden or to buy “a gun, a wife or training,” according to the federal court indictment.
In private online chats, Aden said someone locally had promised him $1,000, and he instructed his younger brother to collect it and send it to him. Transferring the money from a bank account would “get ur hands dirty,” Aden wrote. Eventually, it appears, Mohamud attempted to deliver the money himself. Records show that on April 18, 2014, he boarded a one-way flight to Greece that included a layover in Istanbul, Turkey. Mohamud got off the plane in Istanbul and didn't reboard.
Within days, court documents allege Mohamud had been smuggled into Syria. There, he later told Unnnamed Person No. 1, he was trained in explosives and learned hand-to-hand combat, how to break into houses and how to shoot weapons. By early June, he was prepared to join the jihad.
Those plans changed when Aden, 27, was killed in combat in Syria. In the aftermath of his brother's death, authorities say that Mohamud was instructed to return to the U.S. and commit an act of terrorism on his home soil.
Special Agent Stephen L. Flowers of the FBI in Columbus had been monitoring Aden's Facebook page for months when, on June 4, 2014, he saw two photos: one of Aden reading a book and one of him on a cot with his eyes closed and a bandage wrapped around his head. A message (translated from Arabic) read: “With great sorrow, we acknowledge the martyrdom of Mr. Abu alhasan [Aden's pseudonym] from Somalia. He was killed while struggling bravely against the tyrannical regime in Syria. We pray to God to bless his soul.”
Flowers found the same photos on the Facebook page of Ahmad Alkhatieb, a Facebook friend of Aden's and a Nusrah-linked co-conspirator, according to court documents. Alkhatieb wrote this message (translated from Arabic) on his Facebook page with the photos: “By God, the eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved. O Abu-Hasan! We are so saddened by your departure. … He left the luxuries of the worldly life and immigrated to the land of Syria to support his religion and his oppressed brothers. … He sought death and insisted on martyrdom.”
Ijabo Sheik-Mohamud, Aden and Mohamud's younger sister, then wrote on Aden's Facebook page.
“May Allah have mercy on my older brother Abdifatah Hassan Aden. May Allah grant him to the highest of jannahs [paradises],” she wrote. She also asked that people stop writing on the page so that it could be taken down.
Within hours, Flowers saw that the photos and messages had disappeared from Facebook, apparently after another Facebook friend, Nidal al-A'kidi, asked everyone (in Arabic) to delete the photos because the posting “presents a danger to his family and brothers.” Al-A'kidi, who was believed to be living in Syria, also wrote that, “Currently, his brother is with me and he thanks all of you.”
Mohamud left Syria four days later and returned to Columbus, according to federal authorities, who interviewed him the next day, as well as on June 13, 2014. He told them he had been in Istanbul since mid-May on vacation. He denied seeing his brother and said he had flown back home after learning of his brother's death.
Bringing the Fight Home
FBI agents didn't believe Mohamud's story about vacationing in Turkey. They believed he probably had gone there to enter Syria for training or to fight, based on statements he made to them and his posts and messages on Facebook. After they learned he had taken a group of friends to a shooting range, their suspicions deepened. “Organizing weapons training is consistent with individuals who previously obtained training from [terrorist] training camps to, upon return to their homeland, seek to recruit a group of young male adults in order to lead them to be like-minded jihadist believers prepared to fight,” FBI agent Flowers wrote in his Sept. 18, 2014, request for a search warrant for Mohamud's Facebook page.
And there was more. Besides telling Unnamed Person No. 1 that he had trained in Syria, he said he wanted to kill Americans in the United States “armed forces, police officers or any uniformed individuals,” according to the federal indictment against him. If that didn't work, he planned to attack a prison. The indictment also reveals Mohamud told another associate, “Unnamed Person No. 2,” that he wanted to do “something big in the United States,” such as going to a military base in Texas to “kill three or four American soldiers execution style.” Unnamed Person No. 2 believed Mohamud was trying to recruit him for the terrorist act, the indictment said.
The June 2014 interviews weren't the first Mohamud had with the FBI. Agents initially interviewed him on Feb. 20, 2014, two months before he boarded a plane for Greece. According to a search warrant, Mohamud had identified himself during that interview as Aden—who, agents knew, had already been in Syria for nearly a year. When agents challenged him, Mohamud admitted his true identity and confessed that he had used Aden's ID twice before when local law enforcement had stopped him for traffic offenses.
Franklin County court records show that Mohamud had a handful of minor traffic charges, along with a November 2014 theft arrest. After his arrest on terrorism charges, he pleaded guilty in the theft case to a lesser charge of unauthorized use of property and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Neither family nor friends will discuss Mohamud now. Even his attorney, the normally loquacious Sam Shamansky, declined comment while the case remains open. After Mohamud was arrested, Shamansky told reporters that his client had worked in a warehouse before being jailed and appeared to be a “normal” young man. He said the family had moved to the Columbus area in the late 1990s and that Mohamud had a sister in college. Shamansky said the FBI had been tailing Mohamud for a year and had found no weapons on Mohamud or at his home, a rented half-double on Dunlane Court, a dead-end street off Demorest Road on the West Side where Mohamud had lived with his mother and his sister beginning in April 2013. Investigators searched the house on Feb. 3, 2015, and seized more than 50 items, including cellphones, DVDs, Turkish currency, lists of phone numbers, bank records and Mohamud's passport.
It is unclear in talking with neighbors whether Mohamud's mother and sister remained living at the home. After Mohamud was arrested, neighbors said they knew little about the family. No one had viewed Mohamud with suspicion. Neighbors said he seemed to be a typical young man who didn't attract attention.
However, Mohamud did attract attention at LEPD Firearms in Perry Township in September 2014, five months after he'd returned to the U.S. from Syria, when he took three friends in to teach them how to shoot. Co-owner Eric Delbert remembers it was six days before the anniversary of 9/11 when four men of Middle Eastern descent speaking in another language walked in. He says it gave him pause. He put them into the shooting lane closest to the range desk so he could observe them. One was too young to shoot, so the minor waited while Mohamud showed the other two how to fire the pistols they rented. Range officers offered to teach them to shoot, but Mohamud said he was experienced and would give the others lessons. “We gave out a lot of Band-Aids that day,” Delbert says, noting that the young men had common minor injuries associated with first-time shooters.
After they left, Delbert called authorities and reported the incident. “I told them I just wanted to pass this along,” he says. “They asked us to call if we saw them again.” He didn't see them again—until five months later, when he saw Mohamud on the news after his arrest. “We're big proponents of saying something when something doesn't seem right,” Delbert says.
By then, of course, the FBI had been watching Mohamud for months, building their case against him. The shooting range incident added one more piece to the puzzle.
Chris Serdinak, the supervisory FBI special agent with the Columbus-area Joint Terrorism Task Force, won't talk about Mohamud's case while it's being litigated. He won't say what led federal authorities to charge him with aiding terrorists. He won't say whether Mohamud is spilling secrets to investigators, or if others have been arrested in connection with the case. Serdinak, however, has no misgivings about admitting that homegrown terrorism is a growing and evolving threat. “The spread of the ideology through social media has become very, very pervasive,” he says.
“We don't want to send anyone to jail. We want to get people off the [radical] track. That starts with the parents, the schools, the community,” Serdinak says. “Parents' involvement is exceptionally important. They need to be paying attention to what their kids are looking at online.”
Radical extremist posts on sites like Facebook can be seen as an exciting, dangerous calling to a disenchanted, disengaged youth—like “an echo chamber in somebody's head,” says Serdinak, becoming the only opinion an individual hears, believes and seeks out. The Columbus-area Joint Terrorism Task Force works to counter the propaganda, but often learns too late that it has taken someone down a dangerous path. “What we really want to do is get involved early on,” Serdinak says. “We'd prefer to find a productive way for [those being radicalized] to deal with whatever their issues are, but usually we're brought in way too late to make that an option.”
On Nov. 7, 2016, another Columbus man was arrested and charged with providing support to terrorists. Aaron T. Daniels, 20, was detained at John Glenn Columbus International Airport as he was about to fly to Libya to join the terrorist group ISIL, according to the federal complaint against him. That case apparently is unrelated to Mohamud, sources say.
But Hassan Omar, head of the Somali Community Association of Ohio, knows the scenarios only add fuel to an already politically charged fire. He has known Mohamud's mother, Haweya Hussein Mire, for years. He says Mohamud's family moved to the United States from a refugee camp after leaving Somalia because of the violence and civil war there. Mohamud was 2 when they arrived in the United States, records show. Omar says Mire's husband died a few years ago in Columbus. “It's a heartbreaking story,” Omar says. “This is not something we expect to happen.”
Though he says he didn't know Mohamud or Aden, he attended Mohamud's first court hearing to support Mire. He says the brothers' alleged links to terrorism potentially tarnish Central Ohio's entire Somali community. “The majority of the Somali community are here to help and be part of America,” he says. “Most are decent human beings, but every community can get someone who can commit a crime. We are a noble people, and we love this nation. We don't want to look at one case and judge the whole community on that person. We should not label the Somali community as terrorists.”
March 1, 1987: Abdifatah Aden is born in Somalia.
Sept. 1, 1991: Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud is born in Somalia.
1993: Mohamud and his family move to the United States.
Jan. 18, 2006: Aden becomes a U.S. citizen.
May 2013: Aden leaves U.S., travels to Saudi Arabia and then to Turkey.
Aug. 2013: Aden begins fighting for Nusrah Front, a terrorist organization in Syria.
Sept. 2013: The FBI becomes aware of Aden's Facebook page, “Abdifatah SeekTruth Aden.”
Feb. 2014: Mohamud becomes a U.S. citizen.
Feb. 20, 2014: The FBI interviews Mohamud for the first time.
April 18, 2014: Mohamud travels to Istanbul, Turkey, on a one-way plane ticket to Athens. He gets off in Istanbul and never boards the connecting flight to Athens.
April 19-June 7, 2014: Mohamud alledgedly receives training from a terrorist organization in Syria.
June 3, 2014: Aden dies while fighting in Syria.
June 8, 2014: Mohamud returns to the United States.
June 9 and June 13, 2014: FBI agents interview Mohamud in Columbus.
Sept. 5, 2014: Mohamud visits a Columbus shooting range to teach three other men how to shoot a pistol.
Feb. 21, 2015: Mohamud is arrested on state terrorism charges.
April 16, 2015: A federal grand jury indicts Mohamud on federal terrorism charges.
April 17, 2015: Mohamud pleads not guilty to federal terrorism charges.
July 10, 2017: Trial date for Mohamud