SAN'A, Yemen – A 26-year old American imprisoned in Yemen for 10 months and accused of ties to al-Qaida had multiple contacts with a radical U.S.-born cleric who is a key figure in the terror group's Yemeni offshoot, his lawyer said Thursday.
Sharif Mobley came to Yemen in 2008 to study religion and Arabic, but was arrested in January for suspected links to al-Qaida. Last month, he was charged with killing one of his guards and wounding another while attempting to escape in March from a hospital where he was receiving treatment.
His U.S. lawyer, Cori Crider, said Thursday that Mobley had been in touch with Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric, seeking advice about daily life in Yemen.
U.S. intelligence has linked the 39-year-old al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, to the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers and to last year's failed Christmas Day bombing of a jetliner over Detroit. He also has ties to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people in November at the Fort Hood, Texas, military base.
The United States has already authorized the CIA to capture or kill al-Awlaki, and Yemen has brought charges against him last month for his alleged role in the killing of foreigners.
Crider, who is in Yemen for Mobley's trial, said her client told interrogators that he had a face-to-face meeting with al-Awlaki shortly after arriving in Yemen, and later spoke to the cleric several times by phone.
"Sharif has been totally candid ever since I have been speaking to him about the nature of contacts he had with al-Awlaki," Crider said. "He knew al-Awlaki as an English-speaking imam. It is also important to remember that in July 2008 when this family went to Yemen, he (al-Awlaki) wasn't yet public enemy No. 1."
The lawyer said Mobley asked about Arabic schools, and sought the cleric's advice after his wife suffered complications with her pregnancy.
"But I have never seen any information anywhere that suggest there was any kind of a plot or attack or any other kind of criminal activity that was inspired by, or plotted with ... al-Awlaki or indeed anyone else," she said.
According to Crider, Mobley was held incommunicado for more than two months after his January arrest, and was interrogated by U.S. and Yemeni agents.
He was picked up only weeks after the failed attack by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly used a San'a language school as cover to enter the country and meet with al-Qaida militants for training before his botched attempt to blow up an American passenger jet on Christmas Day.
American officials maintain that Mobley, who grew up in Buena, New Jersey, traveled to Yemen aiming to join a terror group.
Yemeni authorities, however, have dropped their accusations of Mobley's alleged ties to al-Qaida, though he faces the death penalty if convicted of murder of the hospital guard.
Crider, the legal director at the human rights group Reprieve, told The AP on Wednesday that Mobley wanted to study religion and Arabic in Yemen and lived in San'a for nearly 18 months with his wife and daughter. He made one extended trip back home during that time, she said.
In January, two months after Mobley's wife gave birth to a baby boy in Yemen, the family wanted to return to the U.S., the lawyer said. Mobley visited the U.S. Consulate in San'a to obtain a passport for his newborn and exit visas for the family, Crider said.
On his way home in late January, a white van pulled up and a group of undercover agents attempted to detain him, Crider said, and Mobley was shot in the leg.
He was then taken to the police hospital where he was kept chained to the bed and blindfolded except at mealtimes, she added.
During the hospital detention, U.S. agents interrogated Mobley three times about his alleged connection to al-Qaida and asked him if he knew where militants were hiding, the lawyer said.
About three weeks later, as Mobley was being transferred to a prison, he developed bleeding in the genital area and was eventually taken to a second state hospital, where he stayed until the March escape attempt.
During Wednesday's proceedings, the judge adjourned the trial till Nov. 21 because a suitable translator was not available. U.S. officials did not comment on Mobley's hearing and Yemeni officials could not be reached for comment.