Sharif Mobley, a 26-year-old New Jersey man suspected of being an al-Qaida member, reportedly shot his way out of a Yemeni hospital Sunday and into American headlines.
"It was like the movies," said Zaid al-Olfah, who was visiting a family member at the aging, Soviet-style building in the Yemeni capital on Sunday. "There was shooting and smoke coming out the windows and down the hallway." The window of Mobley's former hospital room is still blackened.
Mobley is the latest in a line of suspected "American jihadists" -- disgruntled American citizens, including Colleen LaRose aka Jihad Jane, who have allegedly been radicalized and recruited as foot soldiers by Islamic extremists. Their American citizenship, which allows them to both travel freely and hold sensitive positions of employment without raising suspicion, makes them potentially invaluable contributors to al-Qaida plots on American soil, U.S. intelligence reports have said. A January U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said as many as 36 American ex-convicts had arrived in Yemen in 2009, "ostensibly to study Arabic," but that many "had disappeared and are suspected on having gone to al-Qaida training camps in ungoverned portions of the impoverished country."
Mobley was arrested last week along with 10 other alleged al-Qaida members during a sweep in Yemen's capital, said Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for Yemen's embassy in D.C. Several days later, he was transported to Republican Hospital in Sana'a, where he stole one of his guard's guns, killed him and attempted to shoot his way out of the hospital, Albasha said.
Some witnesses at the hospital said Mobley was being treated for a broken leg, which they said he had sustained after he tried to jump off the roof of a building before his arrest. Others said he didn't appear injured. "There are a lot of stories going around right now," Albasha said. "I have not been able to substantiate a lot of it."
The 11 alleged al-Qaida members arrested were staying on the outskirts of Sana'a in the Mathbah neighborhood, which is characterized by empty lots and unfinished buildings with bouquets of rebar sprouting from their roofs. Al-Iman University, a religious institute that some have suspected of promoting extremism, is nearby.
"He isn't from here, he didn't live here," said Mohammed Abdul Al-Kuraimi, who lives in Mathbah and said he knew of Mobley. Mobley was known as "the Somali" because of his African heritage, he said. He also said Mobley studied at Dar al-Hadith Dammaj institute in Saada, a well-known Salafist school in Yemen's northern province, which was decried as a "known terrorist training center" during tribunals for Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"Reports say that between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign students live and study there," said Abdul-Salam al-Korary, a local journalist who has covered Yemen for several decades. "It is a very radical school."
Abubaker Abdulla Al-Qirbi, Yemen's minister of foreign affairs, said foreign students have been under scrutiny since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who had studied Arabic and trained with al-Qaida in Yemen, attempted to ignite explosives in his underwear on an airline landing in Detroit on Christmas Day.
"It's a very difficult problem because we get a lot of students from Southeast Asia, America and Europe to study Arabic or Islamic studies," al-Qirbi said. "I think the gap in our system is after they arrive in Yemen. How do we monitor them in Yemen? This is a weakness that we are going to address now."
The Yemeni government changed its visa policy in January, making it more difficult for foreigners to obtain tourist and residency visas. In a move designed to increase security, visas are no longer provided at the airport.
Muhammad al-Anisi, the director of Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language in Sana'a, said it's very hard to weed out the good from the bad. Both Abdulmutallab and John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban" who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001, studied at his institute. He described both as "peaceful" and "polite." "These people cheat us. There was no indication to see that this person would do something bad," he said.
Mobley's recent arrest and subsequent fame follows a spate of media reports about "American jihadists" in the past few years.
Colleen LaRose, dubbed "Jihad Jane," a blond-haired, blue-eyed Pennsylvania woman, was arrested in the fall for allegedly working with Islamic extremists to kill a Swedish artist who had created portraits of the Prophet Muhammad considered offensive by Muslims. And California-born Adam Gadahn (nee Pearlman) is allegedly working as an al-Qaida spokesman in Pakistan.
Last year, a group of Somali-Americans from Minnesota and a young man from Alabama were arrested after fighting alongside al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgent group with links to al-Qaida in Somalia. One of them earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first American suicide bomber in history during a bloody attack in November 2008 in Hargeysa, Somalia.
Anwar al-Awlaki, an Arizona-born American who became a radical imam in Yemen, is also tied to both the Fort Hood shooting in November and the Christmas Day airline bombing plot. His vitriolic and charismatic sermons -- eerily delivered in an American drawl -- remain influential among young jihadists both in Yemen and the U.S., according to analysts.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee report said that al-Qaida and its affiliates have actively changed their recruiting techniques to attract U.S. and foreign-born fighters. In the past, many of their recruits have come from moderate, wealthy and non-Muslim backgrounds.
Mobley was raised in Buena, N.J., later lived in Newark, Del., and moved to Yemen roughly two years ago to study Arabic and Islam, according to The New York Times. His father, Charles Mobley, told a local NBC channel that he didn't know anything about his son's situation, but added that he was "no terrorist."
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