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Locked Up Abroad—for the FBI

Inside the feds' secret program to have American citizens detained and interrogated by foreign governments.

Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, is one of the gems of the Arabian Peninsula. Even as the country teeters on the brink of chaos, tourists still visit the ancient hill city to gape at the intricate rammed-earth houses that compose its crenellated skyline.

One January morning in 2010, Sharif Mobley was drinking tea outside a convenience store bedecked with a Coca-Cola sign when two white vans screeched to a halt on the dusty street. Eight armed men dressed in black jumped out. One grabbed Mobley's jacket, but the 26-year-old—a black belt in tae kwon do—slipped away.

Sharif Mobley: Courtest of the Mobley FamilySharif Mobley. Courtesy of the Mobley FamilyHe made it a couple of steps before two bullets fractured his femur. "I'm an American!" he yelled as he was dragged away. The men threw him in the van and sped off.

Mobley, who was in Sanaa with his wife and two young children, had been advised not to go to Yemen. "It is unstable," his childhood imam had warned. But for young Muslims, Sanaa can be irresistible. Lonely Planet pitches Yemen as "a great place to learn Arabic," and it is; the language schools are cheap, good, and plentiful. It has also become a place for young western Muslims to complete their radicalization—which is exactly what government officials say Mobley was doing.

After Mobley vanished, his family would not hear anything authoritative about him for nearly six weeks. But on March 11, 2010, news broke that an American had been involved in an action-movie-style escape attempt at al-Jumhori Hospital in Sanaa. It was Mobley.

According to Yemeni officials, Mobley had tricked his guards at the hospital into putting down their guns to join him for prayers. Then he grabbed one of the weapons, shot two guards—one fatally—and made a break for it. He didn't get far before the entire floor was on lockdown. Yemeni counterterrorism forces—many of which are trained and funded by the US—descended on the hospital and eventually reapprehended Mobley.

After the firefight, information about Mobley's past poured out in the press: He had once called an acquaintance who had fought in Iraq a "Muslim killer," and he was employed as a maintenance worker at several nuclear power plants—a fact that inspired much speculation. By the end of the week, the AP reported that, according to "US officials," Mobley had "traveled to Yemen with the goal of joining" Al Qaeda. Also incriminating was the anonymously sourced allegation that Mobley had communicated with Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born Al Qaeda propagandist now hiding out in Yemen.

Awlaki and Mobley spoke on the phone and corresponded over email a number of times, Mobley's defense lawyer, Cori Crider, told Mother Jones, but about religious and personal matters, not terrorism. She says the two men met in person once in 2008, more than a year before his arrest.

Initial news accounts mirrored the official version of the incident, reporting that Mobley had been captured in early March—when in reality he'd been in custody for six weeks. According to a notarized letter to Crider from two top officials at the police hospital in Sanaa, Mobley was "admitted to the hospital on the 26th of January to the 10th of February 2010 post gun shot with a femur fracture. The surgical therapy was done by one of our orthopedic surgeons on the 26th of January. After treatment the patient was discharged and handed back to the National Security of the Republic of Yemen."

Mobley claims Matt and Khan questioned him repeatedly, threatening his family and telling him he would be raped in a Yemeni prison if he didn't cooperate.

According to legal documents prepared by Crider, Mobley had been visited by two American agents, "Matt from FBI and Khan from [the Pentagon]," while chained to his bed in a secure wing of the hospital. Matt looked "kind of like Matt Damon," and Khan was a "heavyset person of South Asian, possibly Pakistani, descent," Mobley told Crider. When Mobley asked for a lawyer, the agents told him that he was not under formal arrest and would not be read his rights. Mobley claims Matt and Khan questioned him repeatedly over the next several weeks, threatening his family and telling him he would be raped in a Yemeni prison if he didn't cooperate. Some of their questions focused on Awlaki. Eventually, according to the documents, Mobley was transferred to a Yemeni prison—but not before his catheter was removed so roughly that he started bleeding profusely from his penis.

In prison, Mobley told Crider, he was beaten and dragged down stairs before eventually blacking out on a metal slab while the blood from his penis soaked through the front of his prison garment. He was later taken to a second hospital, where, he said, Matt and Khan returned to interrogate him at least once more. Eventually, he tried to escape. "Imagine for a minute you were shot and held in secret for weeks on end, beaten up, threatened with rape, and told that your wife and two babies would face the same fate you had," Crider says. "Most of us in that situation would go to extraordinary lengths to protect our families."

Mobley, like Mohamed, has never been charged with any crime under US law. Yemeni officials told the AP that he hadn't even been on their list of "wanted militants." But as of this writing, he's still in prison in Yemen, awaiting trial for allegedly killing a guard during his escape attempt.

Prior to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the FBI didn't maintain much of a foreign presence. But in the years since, the bureau has increasingly relied on its network of legal attaches, or Legats—elite FBI agents stationed at US embassies and charged with forming counterterrorism alliances with local law enforcement and intelligence services.

Between 1993 and 2001, the FBI more than doubled the number of Legat offices from 20 to 45 (PDF), opening new bureaus in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Another 14 have opened since 9/11 (PDF). The FBI refers to Legats as "the foundation" of its "international program" and says they are "essential" to preventing terrorist attacks. Among their main duties, according to the congressional testimony of one former FBI official, is "coordinating requests for FBI or host-country assistance overseas."

Sometimes that entails encouraging a foreign security service to detain an American terrorism suspect and passing along questions for interrogators.

This could mean something as routine as setting up meetings between FBI honchos and foreign intelligence officials. But according to current and former FBI officials familiar with the process, sometimes it also entails encouraging a foreign security service to detain an American terrorism suspect and passing along questions for interrogators. According to bureau sources, top FBI, Justice Department, and sometimes even White House officials must authorize such requests before they're passed on to the Legat in the country where the suspect is traveling.

In a statement to Mother Jones, the FBI stopped short of admitting that it has requested the detention of American terrorist suspects. The bureau acknowledged, however, that information it has "elected to share" with "foreign law enforcement services" has "at times" resulted in the "detainment of an individual." It also said FBI agents have occasionally "been afforded the opportunity to interview or witness an interview" with detainees abroad. The bureau maintains that FBI agents have "acted in accordance with established FBI policy and guidelines" in these cases. The bureau declined to comment on specific cases.

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