By Associated Press
A Columbus, Ohio, grand jury indicts a Somali man arrested in November. He is charged with conspiring to attack an unspecified site.
WASHINGTON - A Somali man has been charged with plotting to bomb an Ohio shopping mall, the type of vulnerable target in the nation's heartland that U.S. officials have warned that terrorists want to strike.
The four-count grand jury indictment unsealed Monday in Columbus, Ohio, alleges Nuradin Abdi conspired with Iyman Faris, a convicted al-Qaida operative who sought to sabotage the Brooklyn Bridge, and others to detonate explosives at an unidentified mall in the Columbus area.
The alleged conspiracy began shortly after Abdi, 32, returned in March 2000 from training camps in Ethiopia to "ready himself to participate in violent jihadi conflicts" overseas and in the United States, the government charged in court papers. "Jihad" is the Arabic word for holy struggle.
Abdi, who operated a small cell phone business, was arrested at his Columbus apartment by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Nov. 28. He had been under surveillance for months and initially was held on immigration violations, authorities said.
FBI officials and prosecutors in Ohio said no specific mall was targeted and there was no imminent threat when Abdi was arrested.
"The point here is that this plot was foiled while it was still in the planning stages," assistant U.S. attorney Bill Hunt said at a news conference in Cincinnati.
Charges in the indictment, originally returned Thursday but kept secret until Monday, include providing material support to al-Qaida, conspiracy to provide material support and document fraud. If convicted on all charges, Abdi could be sentenced to a maximum of 80 years in prison.
The FBI repeatedly has warned that al-Qaida might shift from attempting to hit tightly guarded installations, such as government buildings or nuclear plants, to more vulnerable targets such as malls, apartment buildings or hotels.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the charges serve as a reminder that al-Qaida is determined "to hit the United States and hit us hard."
Asa Hutchinson, the top Homeland Security Department official for border and transportation security, attended the Washington news conference because the department's bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement was heavily involved in the case. Members of Congress criticized Ashcroft last month when he and FBI director Robert Mueller held a news conference and did not invite any Homeland Security Department officials.
Abdi's 17-year-old brother, Mohamed AbdiKarani, said his brother loved the freedom of the United States and never spoke out against the U.S. government. Abdi has a son and daughter and his wife is pregnant, his brother said.
"He really hated terrorists," AbdiKarani said. "He loved it here. He never had as much freedom. He said it's good to raise his kids here."
AbdiKarani said Abdi was friends with Faris because they attended the same mosque. Columbus is home to more than 30,000 Somalis, the second-largest Somali community in the United States, after Minneapolis.
Faris is serving a 20-year federal sentence after pleading guilty last June to providing material support to al-Qaida. Faris, an Ohio-based truck driver originally from Kashmir, admitted plotting to sever the cables supporting the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and to derail trains in New York or Washington.
Faris had received instructions from top al-Qaida leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed for what might have been a second wave of attacks to follow those of Sept. 11, 2001, investigators say. Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the hijackings, is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed overseas location.
According to U.S. immigration records, Abdi first entered the United States in 1995, lived for a time in Ontario, Canada, and then returned to the United States in August 1997. Abdi was granted asylum as a refugee in January 1999 after giving false information to immigration officials, the government charges.
Later that year, he used that status to apply for a travel document by claiming he was planning to visit Germany and the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
In fact, prosecutors say, Abdi used the document to travel to Ethiopia to obtain "military-style training in preparation for violent jihad." The training included guns, guerrilla warfare, bombs and radio use. One co-conspirator not in U.S. custody provided money for the trip, the indictment says.
Abdi returned in March 2000 - again using fraudulent documents, prosecutors say - and was met at the Columbus airport by Faris. The shopping mall plot was hatched a short time later, officials said, with one of the co-conspirators providing Abdi with bomb-making instruction.