Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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An American Just Disappeared From a Prison in Yemen, and No One Will Say What Happened

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 5:00 PM EDT
Sharif Mobley with his daughter

Sharif Mobley—an American accused by the US government of wanting to join Al Qaeda, and by the Yemeni government of shooting a prison guard—has disappeared from the Sana'a prison where he was being held, his lawyer, Cori Crider of the British charity Reprieve, said Monday. Crider believes the Yemeni secret police are holding Mobley in an undisclosed location, and has written to the US Embassy requesting the government's help. "We have not had any news of [Mobley] for 39 days, despite strenuous attempts to locate him," she wrote.

Mobley's is one of the forgotten stories of the war on terror. In early 2010, the New Jersey-born Muslim was living in Sana'a, Yemen's capital. He says he had moved there to study Arabic; US officials have told reporters that he planned to join Al Qaeda. Mobley was running errands one morning, he says, when he was kidnapped by Yemeni secret police, shot in the leg, and held incommunicado, tortured, and interrogated for weeks.

During this time, FBI agents visited and questioned Mobley, leading him to believe that the Yemeni government had arrested him and tortured him on behalf of the US government. (Documents Crider obtained through the Freedom of Information Act in 2012 proved that the US government was aware of Mobley's detention even as US officials were telling his wife they did not know where he was.) Eventually, Mobley tried to escape, and US and Yemeni officials say he shot and killed a guard in the process. He's been held in the Sana'a central prison ever since. His supporters believe that he was a victim of proxy detention—civil libertarians' term for the US government's practice of having allied countries detain suspects the United States doesn't want to arrest and detain itself.

Mobley disappeared sometime between February 27, when Crider's colleagues saw him there last, and March 22, when they visited the prison and discovered he was nowhere to be found. The timing is noteworthy for a couple reasons. The same week Mobley turned up missing, Kel McClanahan, an American lawyer who helped with Crider's FOIA, filed suit in federal court in Washington alleging that the FBI had hacked his emails after he obtained classified documents relating to the case.

Moreover, just before Mobley disappeared, Crider and her team were about to publicize a bevy of US government documents they obtained through FOIA. "I am certainly concerned that this is about someone trying to discourage embarrassing evidence from coming to light," she wrote in an email. "Why move him now? There have been security incidents in the centre of town, but that has been the case before. So all is very odd."

The big question now is whether the US had any connection to Mobley's latest disappearance. It's not so far-fetched. Consider the case of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist who had been accused of associating with Al Qaeda because he had interviewed Anwar al-Awlaki, the now-dead American Al Qaeda propagandist. In February 2011, Yemen was set to release Shaye. But, as Jeremy Scahill reported in The Nation, President Barack Obama intervened personally to prevent Shaye's release. The journalist was held for another two years.

The State Department said it was aware of "reports" that Mobley had been moved but couldn't comment further out of concern for his privacy. A spokesman for the Yemeni embassy said he didn't know where Mobley was, but he'd check.

Update, Wednesday, April 9, 10:15 a.m. EST: Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy, said Wednesday morning that Mobley is now in the Sana'a central prison, where he was in February. Albasha wouldn't say whether Mobley had been taken elsewhere previously, but added that "legal counsel and relatives and family should coordinate with the US Embassy in Sana'a regarding other matters such as visitation."

Update 2, Wednesday, April 9, 2:00 p.m. EST: Tim Moore, a colleague of Crider's at Reprieve, sends the following statement:

We have yet to receive any official confirmation of the information which you reported from Mohammad al-Basha, regarding Sharif [Mobley]'s presence in the Central Prison. To the contrary, we received a second email from the [US] Embassy last night, in which the representative wrote “We have contacted all the possible locations where he could be held. We have received denials from everyone except the Ministry of the Interior who said they would get back to us. We are sending a diplomatic note out tomorrow and pressing to visit Mr. Mobley... I agree we should be getting official confirmations on his whereabouts and his situation. However none of the officials we contacted feel comfortable giving us a direct answer." So, from our side, we still very much believe Sharif to be out of contact.

You can read Crider's full exchanges with the embassy here and here. Crider said in an email Wednesday that if Mobley is now in the central prison, "they moved him back because of your article."

Here's the letter Crider sent to the US Embassy:

 

Obama Administration Won't Release Real Name of American It's Considering Killing Without Trial

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 1:48 PM EST

President Barack Obama and his national security team are debating whether to kill Abdullah al-Shami, an American citizen whom they say is an Al Qaeda terrorist hiding out in Pakistan.

Shami wouldn't be the first American Al Qaeda suspect to be deliberately killed by the government without charge or trial. That distinction belongs to Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader who was vaporized in a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011. In 2013, the government admitted that Awlaki was one of four Americans killed by drone strikes ordered by the Obama administration. Samir Khan, another American, was killed in the same strike as Awlaki. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar's 16-year-old son, was killed in a separate strike several weeks later, although government sources have told reporters that Abdulrahman's death was a mistake. And Jude Mohammed, another American, was killed in a third strike in Pakistan the same year.

The government claims that, of the four Americans killed by drone strikes under Obama, only Awlaki was deliberately and specifically targeted for death—the first and only American to receive such treatment thus far. Shami would be the second.

This time, though, there's even less public information about the man the government is targeting for death. The New York Times' Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported Friday that Shami is a nom de guerre, and the Obama administration won't even release the alleged terrorist's real name:

Interviews with American officials and outside terrorism experts sketch only the most impressionistic portraits of Mr. Shami.

Born in the United States, possibly in Texas, he moved with his family to the Middle East when he was a toddler. Obama administration officials declined requests to provide biographical information about Mr. Shami such as his real name and age—saying that the information is classified—or any specific information about where he was born or where he traveled after leaving the United States.

[...]

[Shami] came to the attention of the American authorities in 2008, around the same time that another American, Bryant Neal Vinas, was getting Qaeda training in Pakistan, one former counterterrorism official recalled. The authorities worried at the time that a surge of people with terrorism training and Western passports might be coming to the United States. Mr. Vinas was later captured and brought back to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.

The contrast between Vinas, who was captured, and Shami, who was not, is fascinating. Vinas was brought into the federal court system and had the opportunity to avail himself of legal representation, presumably because the Obama administration thought it was important to give someone they wanted to lock up for a long time a trial. But when the administration wants to kill, rather than imprison, an American, the courts apparently don't have to be involved at all.

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