He didn’t understand what he was seeing.
It was mid-day this past January when Jason Badger, a young husband and father, stopped by a lot he and his wife bought in the lonely desert of northern New Mexico. When Badger last was there, the land was empty. Now he saw an RV partially buried in a strange compound. He saw kids in filthy clothes. He saw a man, accompanied by a small boy playing with jumbo Legos in the dirt.
The man was a metro Atlanta resident wanted in connection with the disappearance of his 3-year-old son, and the boy was the missing son. The other people on the compound – four adults and 11 children – had all arrived after leaving the East Coast suddenly, without telling relatives where they were going or why.
Badger, of course, didn’t know any of this.
“Hey, bud,” he recalls saying to the stranger, “pretty sure you’re on my land here.”
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Since then, when the man stared back silently, Badger’s been trying to make sense of the situation that unfolded. On Aug. 3, authorities raided the compound, taking custody of 11 children. Soon afterward, they found the decomposing body of a small boy, feared to be the kid Badger saw with the Legos.
Taos County, New Mexico, authorities suggested the group was made up of Muslim extremists, who were training children to become school shooters. Relatives and friends say they are dumbfounded by the claims.
But little has made sense to those who know 39-year-old Siraj Ibn Wahhaj since he told his wife he was taking their son to a park and instead embarked on a mysterious journey into the desert.
Tariq Abdur Rashid knows Wahhaj. Or, rather, he knows a different version of the man on the news.
Rashid, who works for Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, said he’s known the family for decades because he studied under Wahhaj’s father, the well-known New York City imam also named Siraj Wahhaj. Rashid said he became close with the younger Wahhaj, particularly after they both moved to Atlanta.
They prayed at a Westhaven Drive mosque every morning. The younger Wahhaj, who goes by Ibn and worked as a security guard, started a food pantry and drove around to feed homeless people.
But something seemed to change late last year.
One night in late November, Rashid recalls his friend talking about needing to save his son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, from a curse. The child had always struggled with brain damage from birth, developmental and cognitive delays, and seizures, but it wasn’t clear what the father was talking about. Rashid said he tried to calm him down, but it was no use.
“I just know something went wrong mentally,” Rashid told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Hakima Ramzi, Abdul-Ghani’s mother, said she also had noticed a change in her husband. He became withdrawn. He spoke of trouble with the boy and planned a ruqya, an Islamic practice involving prayer believed to help cure illness.
But Ramzi said she never thought he would take the boy away.
After Ibn Wahhaj left, the father met with the group: two sisters, a brother-in-law and a woman who, according to family, Ibn Wahhaj also calls his wife. With their 12 children in tow, the group headed west.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj recalls getting a message at about the same time from his daughter, Subhannah Wahhaj. She said everything would be fine, but didn’t reveal plans.
“I said, ‘Subhannah, I love you and my children very much, but I love God and his messenger more,” he told reporters in New York. “Then I talked about justice. Where is the justice for Abdul-Ghani, who was taken away from his mother?”
On Dec. 13, Ibn Wahhaj was driving on I-65 in central Alabama when he lost control of a 2004 Ford Explorer. The SUV, which reportedly had Abdul-Ghani inside, left the road and flipped. According to a police report, the driver said he couldn’t remember what made him lose control.
No one was seriously injured. Someone in a box truck registered to Lucas Morton, Ibn Wahhaj’s brother-in-law, picked them up and they drove on.
Back in Georgia, Abdul-Ghani’s mother was desperate. She talked with police and the FBI. She heard about the wreck in Alabama. Though she said they had no prior marital trouble, she filed for divorce on Dec. 20 as part of an emergency petition for custody, court records show.
On Jan. 9, a Clayton judge issued a warrant demanding the father appear in court.
When Badger found the group, they didn’t want to leave.
As he understands it, they had legally laid claim to the plot next to his but set up on his accidentally. He pulled out maps and showed Ibn Wahhaj, whom he found quiet but pleasant enough. Wahhaj asked if they could trade land, considering the plots were the same size.
“I didn’t want to put all those kids out,” Badger said. “This was winter.”
While working on the land swap, Ibn Wahhaj told Badger why they’d come to the wild and sparsely populated area.
“He told me they wanted to move to get away from the big hustle,” Badger said, “to live a peaceful life.”
Training kids for terror?
The land swap fell through when Ibn Wahhaj told Badger in June he couldn’t afford the closing costs. Badger told them to leave. Wahhaj said, OK, but didn’t move.
Abdul-Ghani’s mother told Channel 2 Action News she was joyful when she heard from police in June her son might be there.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe has said the compound was under surveillance, but he had no probable cause for a search until last Friday, when authorities learned of a message from someone inside saying they were starving.
During the raid, the 11 children were “within easy reach” of firearms and had almost no food, court filings allege.
An officer sent Ramzi pictures of the kids, who’d been taken by the state, and asked which one was Abdul-Ghani.
None of them.
On Tuesday, the mother learned a young boy’s body had been found the day before, which would’ve been the boy’s 4th birthday. It still hasn’t been identified because of the state of decomposition, but she believes it’s Abdul-Ghani.
While accepting his presumed death, family and friends said they’re perplexed by the allegations. Why would a man who they say isn’t normally violent and has spoken out against Muslim extremists train kids to do school shootings?
Imam Siraj Wahhaj knows what it’s like to be accused of radical Islam. He’s been dealing with it since word got out that some of the perpetrators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had attended his Brooklyn mosque.
Rashid said he has always known the father to be a believer in peace, and the same goes for the son.
“He’s not that way,” Rashid said. “Everybody who grew up with him in New York City, it’s hurting their hearts.”
Some, Rashid included, are upset the case is being tied to Islam when he sees his friend as someone struggling with problems of mental health, not religion.
But on Thursday, friends and family awoke to Ibn Wahhaj’s face on the cover of The New York Daily News, a spot typically reserved for stars or the infamous.
The giant screaming headline: TRAINING KIDS FOR TERROR.