COLUMBUS, Ohio – Like thousands of fellow Somalis leaving behind brutal clan warfare, Nuradin Abdi (search) settled in this city known for relatively mild weather, plentiful jobs and, in recent years, an abundance of shopping malls.
Just months after the government granted Abdi asylum, however, federal authorities say he was plotting to blow up one of those malls, exactly the type of target some feared would be next on terrorists' lists.
Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) said charges revealed Monday against Abdi serve as a reminder that Al Qaeda is determined "to hit the United States and hit us hard."
But the portrait painted of Abdi by the government is in sharp contrast to the one offered by his family, who insist he is innocent and describe a man who hated terrorists.
Abdi, who operated a small cell phone business, loved his new freedoms and never spoke out against the U.S. government, said his brother Mohamed AbdiKarani, 17. Abdi has a son and daughter and his wife is pregnant.
"He loved it here. He never had as much freedom. He said it's good to raise his kids here," AbdiKarani said. "He really hated terrorists. You know how (President) Bush hates terrorists? I think he hates them more."
Abdi is accused of conspiring with convicted Al Qaeda operative Iyman Faris — a former Columbus truck driver who sought to sabotage the Brooklyn Bridge — to bomb a mall in the area, though the FBI said no specific mall was targeted.
Abdi, 32, was arrested at his apartment Nov. 28, the day after Thanksgiving when malls across America were crowded with shoppers. He was held at first on immigration violations, authorities said.
Charges in the four-count indictment include providing material support to Al Qaeda, conspiracy to provide material support and document fraud. If convicted on all charges, Abdi could be sentenced to up to 80 years in prison and fined $1 million.
The FBI has warned Al Qaeda might shift away from trying to hit tightly guarded installations, such as government buildings or nuclear plants, to more vulnerable targets such as malls, apartment buildings or hotels.
Court papers filed by the government allege that a plot dated to March 2000 when Abdi returned from a terrorist training camp in Ethiopia to join Faris in Columbus.
Faris, originally from Kashmir, is serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty last June to plotting to sever cables supporting the Brooklyn Bridge and to derail trains in New York or Washington. Neither of those plots came to fruition.
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.
Abdi, his feet and hands shackled, appeared distracted during a hearing Monday before a federal magistrate. He alternately twisted around in his chair and smiled at spectators and U.S. marshals, then stared at the table in front of him. He placed his forehead on the table as the magistrate read him his rights.
Abdi's mother, Nadifa Hassan, expressed concern about her son's health, saying he was withdrawn when she visited him in jail about a month ago. She said she heard her son likely would be deported.
"He's very sick," she said through a translator while surrounded by friends at Columbus' Somali Community Association. "When I saw him last time he wasn't talking at all. I feel pain inside, the way he looked like that."
"I know my son, that he's not a terrorist," she said.
According to U.S. immigration records, Abdi first entered the United States in 1995, lived for a time in Canada, and then returned to the United States in August 1997. Abdi was granted asylum in America as a refugee in January 1999 after giving false information to immigration officials, the government charges.
Later that year, he used that refugee status to apply for a travel document by falsely claiming he was planning to visit Germany and the Muslim holy city of Mecca in 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 usage.
Jamilla Hassan, 39, a cousin of Abdi's, said she hopes the charges are a mistake. Abdi was like any immigrant who escaped the clan-based war in Somalia looking for a better life, Hassan said.
"He was another good American," she said.