Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Ohio mall terror plot charged

Feds: Holiday arrest timed to save shoppers

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When the Christmas shopping season arrived last year, federal authorities in Cincinnati and Columbus decided they could wait no longer.

They arrested Nuradin M. Abdi on suspicion that the Somali immigrant was plotting with al-Qaida operatives to blow up a shopping mall.

They had been investigating at least six months and wanted to learn more about him and potential targets. But on the day after Thanksgiving - one of the busiest shopping days of the year - they moved.

"We thought that if something was going to be done, that might be the time," said Richard Wilkens, agent in charge of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Cincinnati. "He was a threat to national security."

The nature of the threat was revealed for the first time Monday when authorities announced Abdi's indictment on terrorism-related charges.

Although family members in Columbus described Abdi as an immigrant who loved freedom and hated terrorists, law enforcement officials portrayed him as a man determined to harm his adopted country.

They said he made contact with a known al-Qaida operative, traveled to Ethiopia for military-style training in preparation for "violent Jihad" and plotted to detonate a bomb in a Columbus-area mall.

"This was an ugly threat," said Kevin Brock, special agent in charge of the FBI in Cincinnati. "It was a hateful threat."

Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a Washington news conference that the Abdi case is further proof that al-Qaida wants "to hit the United States hard."

Federal court records linked Abdi - who ran a cell phone business in Columbus - to former Columbus truck driver Iyman Faris, serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty a year ago to providing material support to al-Qaida.

The records state that Faris met Abdi at the Columbus airport in March 2000 upon Abdi's return from terrorist training in Ethiopia, which included lessons in guerrilla warfare, bombs and "anything to damage the enemy."

"The defendant's purpose in obtaining this training was to ready himself to participate in violent Jihad conflicts," federal prosecutors state in the court records.

The prosecutors claim that Abdi, 32, later obtained bomb-making instructions and plotted with Faris and other, unnamed conspirators to attack a mall.

Brock described Abdi as a serious threat, but he said investigators did not think that an attack was imminent when he was arrested Nov. 28, 2003, on immigration violations.

"There are no malls in imminent danger, then or now," Brock said. "We became aware of the threat in time to avert it."

He said investigators were confident last year that there was no immediate danger because Faris, one of the key figures in the alleged plot, already was jailed. He said that's why no specific warnings were issued last fall and why Columbus malls were not notified of a potential threat.

"This plot was foiled while it was still in the planning stages," said Bill Hunt, the first assistant to U.S. Attorney Gregory Lockhart.

Even so, authorities decided not to take any chances in November when the busy holiday shopping season was about to begin.

"The timing was of special interest," said Greg Palmore, spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "The Christmas season means a lot of shoppers."

Law enforcement officials said they developed information about Abdi's possible connection to terrorism after Faris' arrest, although they would not say whether Faris provided that information.

Faris, originally from Kashmir, admitted last year to plotting to cut support cables on the Brooklyn Bridge and to derail trains in New York and Washington. Neither of those plots was carried out.

Authorities would not say how Faris knew Abdi, but Brock confirmed Monday that the two men had a relationship and that "these charges are connected to Faris."

He said the Southern Ohio Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes representatives from the FBI and several other federal agencies, continues to investigate several individuals.

Abdi's arrest in November was based on charges that he falsified information that he used to obtain asylum in the United States in 1999.

The recent charges include conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, fraud and misuse of documents, and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Abdi's Cincinnati-based immigration lawyer, Doug Weigle, said he did not know details about the terrorist charges against his client. But Abdi's family and a Somali advocacy group based in Minnesota, the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, complained Monday about the "secrecy and lack of due process."

Federal officials would not say where Abdi has been jailed since his arrest, only that he has been at several locations.

Abdi appeared in U.S. District Court in Columbus Monday and was ordered held without bond for another hearing Wednesday.


The Associated Press contributed. E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com

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