SAN'A, Yemen – An American Al Qaeda suspect detained in Yemen fooled his hospital guards into unshackling him by asking to join them for prayers, security officials said Saturday. He then killed a guard who laid down his weapon as he went ahead at prayer time.
The new details of Sharif Mobley's failed escape attempt, obtained by The Associated Press, indicate the 26-year-old American of Somali descent has a level of training and cunning characteristic of the terror network.
The story of a young American Muslim drawn to Yemen, ostensibly to study Arabic, has once again demonstrated the reach of the country's year-old Al Qaeda offshoot, which was behind the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit. The suspect in that attack, a young Nigerian Muslim, went to Yemen and used Arabic study as a cover, Yemeni authorities have said.
Mobley had traveled to Yemen two years ago and was recently arrested there in a sweep that netted 10 other Al Qaeda suspects.
Mobley made his bold escape attempt March 7 after being transferred from prison to a hospital in the capital, San'a, for medical treatment. He tried to shoot his way out of the hospital, killing one guard and seriously injuring another before being recaptured.
Two senior Yemeni officials involved in Mobley's case said he was being treated for complications from a metal rod implanted in his leg some time in the past. The prison doctor had asked to transfer him to the hospital where he stayed for a week.
The officials agreed to discuss details of Mobley's attempted escape on condition of anonymity because the investigation has not finished.
At the hospital, Mobley befriended his guards and asked them to teach him Arabic. He performed prayers and read the Quran with them.
Then a week ago, the officials said, Mobley asked his guard to unshackle him from his hospital bed at prayer time. The guard did and then went into a washroom ahead of Mobley to perform ritual ablutions required before the five daily prayers in Islam, leaving his gun unattended.
Mobley snatched the gun and shot the guard twice — first in the head, then in the chest — as he walked out of the washroom.
When a second guard outside heard the shots, he rushed in. Mobley shot him in the kidney and abdomen, leaving him in serious condition. Mobley was then chased around the hospital until he surrendered.
One of the senior officials said Mobley's targeting indicates he is highly trained in the use of firearms and criticized the negligence of the prison guards.
He also said Mobley had been in the high security intelligence prison after being detained a few months ago. That timeframe contradicted a statement by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, which had said Mobley was detained earlier this month.
U.S. officials say Mobley had been a laborer at six U.S. nuclear power plants before traveling to Yemen. U.S. authorities are investigating whether he had access to sensitive information or materials that would be useful to terrorists.
He passed all necessary background checks for those jobs. On Saturday, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer called for a review of such background checks to see whether they need to be more thorough.
U.S. officials say Mobley traveled to Yemen with the goal of joining a terrorist group and that the U.S. government was aware of his potential extremist ties long before his arrest. The Yemeni officials said Mobley was not on Yemen's list of wanted militants.
U.S. intelligence officials have warned of the possibility that Al Qaeda and other extremist movements overseas could be seeking to radicalize American Muslims and recruit them.
Mobley grew up in Buena, New Jersey. His parents said he is not a terrorist, though a former friend said Mobley was becoming increasingly radical in his Muslim beliefs before he moved to Yemen. His mother last spoke to him in January.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose leadership includes Saudis and Yemenis, took root in Yemen a year ago, taking advantage of the impoverished country's chronic instability and finding shelter among sympathetic tribes who are hostile to the weak central government.
Under U.S. pressure and with the help of American aid, training and intelligence, Yemen's government has battled the Al Qaeda militants. But its forces, which are also battling a separate rebel insurgency in the north of the country, are stretched thin.
Until December's failed airliner attack, the Al Qaeda affiliate had only struck inside Yemen, including deadly bombings outside the U.S. Embassy.
On Friday, a Philadelphia imam, Anas Muhaimin, said he tried to discourage Mobley from traveling to Yemen because he believed the country was unsafe. Muhaimin said the young man attended prayer services occasionally, but hadn't been to the mosque in about three years.