Advisor to Brooklyn imam says evidence will reveal truth about Taos County compound suspects

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 3/20/19

If Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of the At-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, knew that his son, two daughters and two others who lived at the compound raided last summer in Taos County had been indicted on federal …

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Advisor to Brooklyn imam says evidence will reveal truth about Taos County compound suspects

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If Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of the At-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, knew that his son, two daughters and two others who lived at the compound raided last summer in Taos County had been indicted on federal terrorism charges March 13, he gave no sign, said his colleague, Ali Abdul-Karim.

“I had asked him maybe a week ago about the case,” Abdul-Karim said, speaking from the New York City mosque this week.

“All of them were indicted on terrorist charges?” he asked.

A federal grand jury sitting in Albuquerque returned the indictment on Wednesday (March 13) charging the imam’s children, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40; Hujrah Wahhaj, 38; and Subhanah Wahhaj, 36, with the new federal offenses. His son-in-law Lucas Morton, 41, who is married to Subhanah Wahhaj, and his son’s partner, Jany Leveille, 36, were also charged in the indictment.

The federal government has accused the five of maintaining “a training compound” north of Amalia near the Colorado border, where investigators say they were preparing to carry “out attacks to kill officers and employees of the United States.”

Abdul-Karim is an administrator and the head of the security at the At-Taqwa Mosque where Imam Wahhaj has served the Brooklyn Islamic population for decades. He said he clearly remembers the news headlines when they were arrested last summer, but he expressed disbelief that the five could have been involved in any terrorist activity.

He stopped short, however, of saying they must be innocent.

“I’d have to see the evidence,” he said. “I just can’t go by accusations.”

Taos County Sheriff’s deputies said they found the five adults living with 11 malnourished and poorly clothed children when they raided the compound on Aug. 3, 2018.

Deputies, supported by a tactical team from the New Mexico Office of Superintendent of Insurance, were searching for Siraj Ibn Wahhaj’s 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, who had been reported missing in Georgia by his mother in 2017.

They found the toddler dead and buried inside a 100-foot tunnel found at the compound on Aug. 6, the day the boy would have turned 4. They learned the toddler had suffered from epilepsy and died of a seizure on Christmas Eve 2017. They found other evidence to suggest the boy had been denied medication that could have saved his life. Journal entries also indicated the boy’s father and Leveille believed he was instead suffering from a spiritual affliction.

Photos taken at the makeshift compound showed a homemade shooting range, stockpiles of weapons and ammunition scattered about a dwelling built of wooden frames, tarps, trailers and trenches.
Local and federal investigators say they also uncovered journals and other materials that described how to carry out terrorist attacks. One of the alleged targets was Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, according to court records.

Text messages retrieved from cellphones confiscated from the defendants indicated that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Morton had attempted to recruit others to travel to the compound “to engage in jihad, to die as martyrs, and to engage in violent acts, including killing Federal Bureau of Investigation employees, government officials and military personnel,” according to the federal indictment.

Child abuse charges were filed by the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Taos following the raid, but after prosecutors missed a deadline to provide a preliminary examination, the cases were dropped and federal charges were quickly filed against the five. (See a letter from Assistant District Attorney Tim Hasson in this issue explaining what happened).

The initial federal charges were filed on Sept. 11 in an indictment charging possession of firearms and ammunition by a person living in the United States illegally.

Investigators said last year they had identified Leveille as an illegal immigrant from Haiti, and prosecutors have claimed she was one of the masterminds of the alleged plot, but charges related to the possible attack were not filed until this month.

“The superseding indictment alleges a conspiracy to stage deadly attacks on American soil,” said U.S. Attorney John C. Anderson. “These allegations remind us of the dangers of terrorism that continue to confront our nation, and the allegation concerning the death of a young child only underscores the importance of prompt and effective intervention by law enforcement.”

The five are scheduled for an arraignment on March 21 in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque. Anderson declined to comment on the case when contacted by phone March 15. Kari Converse, a defense attorney representing Leveille, said her client plans to plead not guilty at the hearing, but other attorneys could not be reached as of press time Wednesday (March 20).

Abdul-Karim said he remembers watching Siraj Ibn Wahhaj grow up at the mosque in Brooklyn, where he was raised around a diverse Muslim community before he became interested in private security, as he had when he was young.

“He was a regular child and grew up as a regular child,” Abdul-Karim remembers.

Eventually the young Wahhaj left the community, “moving from one point to another,” Abdul-Karim said, as he built a reputation as a licensed and trained security agent.

“He was handling a few venues in terms of executive protection,” Abdul-Karim said, but didn’t go into further detail about the types of clients Wahhaj was working to protect.

Investigators have now said that Wahhaj’s travels also took him to the Middle East, but his travels there have not yet been connected to any terrorism allegations filed against him.

Records referenced in court have shown that customs agents would look closely at Wahhaj when he would reenter the United States.

His father, too, has at one time been accused of having ties to Islamic extremism.

Imam Siraj Wahhaj was one of many Muslims included on a federal list as one of the “unindicted co-conspirators” in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but no link was ever definitively established.
His status as a leader of the Muslim world in the United States has not wavered in the years since, however, as he has resumed his role as a leader of the Brooklyn mosque where Abdul-Karim serves as one of his closest advisors.

In recent days, their attention has been drawn, along with the rest of the Islamic world, to the massacre of 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. The attack came two days after the indictments against Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and his four co-defendants were filed in Albuquerque.

Abdul-Karim called the killings an “atrocity,” a manifestation, he said, of a growing climate of prejudice against his community.

He acknowledged that he can’t be certain whether the recent allegations of terrorism filed against the five in Albuquerque are purely a reflection of that same bias, but it remains difficult to see the young man he knew in New York as a member of one of the “fanatical fringe groups” he sees on the rise.

“There is a climate, especially in this administrative setting that we have today. There is a bias,” he said. “But I’m saying that generically. I don’t know what evidence they have. I’m not saying they’re blindly innocent, but I have to look at things with a third eye.”

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