ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A former FBI translator has been charged with doctoring transcripts in which his own name appeared on intercepts of phone calls placed by a terrorism suspect.
Abdirizak Jaji Raghe Wehelie, 66, of Burke, Virginia, was arrested Saturday at an airport after returning to the U.S. on an international fight, according to Josh Stueve, a spokesman for the US attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Wehelie made an initial appearance Monday at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, where he is charged with making false statements and obstructing an investigation.
An indictment unsealed Monday states that Wehelie worked as a contractor for the FBI from 2012 to 2015. In December 2012, a man targeted by the FBI in an investigation connected to the Al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia called and left a voicemail message for Wehelie.
The call was intercepted under court-ordered surveillance, and Wehelie was tasked the next day with translating the call. He marked himself down as "unidentified male" even though the voicemail message on Wehelie's cellphone identified him as "Abdirizak Wehelie."
The FBI questioned Wehelie about his actions in 2016. At the time, according to the indictment, Wehelie admitted that he should not have identified himself as an "unidentified male" on that translation. He also told FBI agents that he had never actually had a phone conversation with the person who called him and that he didn't know the person very well. But a subsequent FBI investigation revealed that the two had nearly 180 phone contacts from 2010 to 2017.
The FBI employed Wehelie as a contractor even though his adult children had been placed on the no-fly list and denied re-entry to the U.S. for several weeks in 2010, well before Abdirizak Wehelie began his work for the FBI.
Yahya and Yusuf Wehelie were the subject of international news coverage in the summer of 2010 when they said they were unfairly placed on the no-fly list after traveling to Yemen to learn Arabic. After a delay of several weeks and pressure from Muslim civil rights groups, the brothers were allowed to return to the U.S. later that summer.
In 2017, Yusuf Wehelie was sentenced to 10 years in prison for illegally transporting high-powered weapons in a case where he spoke with an undercover witness about his desire to shoot up a military recruitment center on behalf of the Islamic State group.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment Monday.
Nina Ginsberg, Wehelie's lawyer, said the case against Abdirizak Wehelie has nothing to do with any of the issues involving his family.
"This has nothing to do with his sons. This has nothing to do with terrorism," Ginsberg said after the hearing.
Ginsberg said Wehelie had been teaching in Somalia since August before his arrest. The initial indictment against Wehelie was handed down in December 2017, with a superseding indictment issued in December 2018. Both indictments had been under seal until Monday. It was unclear why Wehelie was not arrested on the first indictment before he traveled to Somalia in 2018.
At Monday's hearing, a magistrate judge ordered Wehelie to be freed on unsecured $20,000 bail while he awaits trial on the condition that he turn over his passport.