A metro Atlanta man arrested Friday and under scrutiny over the whereabouts of his missing son faces a new accusation: authorities in New Mexico claim he and four relatives set up a ragged desert compound to teach children to be school shooters.
That allegation emerged Wednesday in court filings made by prosecutors asking a judge to hold Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, and four other suspects, each charged with 11 counts of child cruelty, without bond. Meanwhile, investigators were working to determine if decomposing remains found near the compound belong to the missing son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj. They were found Monday, Abdul-Ghani’s 4th birthday.
Wahhaj and fellow suspects Lucas Allen Morton, Jany Leveille, Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhannah Wahhaj were arraigned on Wednesday. Siraj Wahhaj and Leveille declined to offer a plea, while the others pleaded not guilty, Albuquerque news station KOB4 reported. They face bond hearings in coming days.
Taos County, N.M. Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said his agency was watching the compound, where the adults lived with 11 children, before Friday’s raid. He said it appeared it belonged to Muslim extremists but didn’t elaborate.
Wahhaj’s family history is drawing national attention to the case. His father is the Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who served as a character witness for the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Omar Abdel-Rahman. In 1993, the imam told The New York Times that, though some of the suspects had attended his Brooklyn mosque, Masjid at-Taqwa, the mosque’s mission was peace.
No authorities have suggested the imam, who also sometimes speaks at the Doraville Masjid at-Taqwa, has any involvement in the New Mexico case. In January, the elder Wahhaj made a plea on Facebook, asking for prayers for his family’s safe return. In addition to his namesake, two of the suspects are the imam’s children and the other two are relatives through marriage. The children are all his grandkids, he said.
“We believe they may be traveling together,” he wrote on Jan. 5. “If you have any information or know their whereabouts, please contact Clayton County Police Department.”
The child’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, had told Clayton police her husband of 15 years took the child to go to a park and didn’t return on Dec. 1.
The boy had struggled with neurological problems from hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, which is brain damage caused when an infant’s brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen and blood. He can’t walk and suffers from seizures, the mom said.
“My son, he needs his medication. I don’t know now if he’s alive or his condition,” Ramzi said in a January video on Facebook, begging for information, adding that the situation was out of character for her husband.
A warrant issued by Clayton judge demanding Siraj Ibn Wahhaj appear in court said he had spoken of performing an “exorcism” on his son because Abdul-Ghani was “possessed by the Devil.”
Before learning of the body found, the mother told CNN her husband wasn’t actually intending an exorcism but instead was planning a ruqya. It’s an Islamic practice involving prayer believed to help cure illness.
“That was a translation issue in the court," Ramzi said. The father "just wanted to pray for Abdul-Ghani to get better."
The mother told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday she was too upset to talk. Other family couldn’t be reached for comment.
Taos County authorities raided the compound after someone apparently inside sent a message to a Clayton detective saying: "We are starving and need food and water.”
In Wednesday’s court filings, the prosecutor said the 11 children were found “within easy reach” of firearms. They looked like they hadn’t eaten in days and they had no access to water, except for two kitchen pots apparently collecting rainwater. The small compound was made up of a partially buried camper, a wall of tires, trenches and a 100-foot-long tunnel that had evidently been dug by the camper for unclear purposes.
The children are in the custody of New Mexico child protective services. A foster parent who has taken in one of the kids alerted authorities to the alleged school shooting training, the filings said.
Referring to one of the defendants, though it isn’t clear which one, the child said, “the defendant had trained the child in the use of an assault rifle in preparations for a future school shooting.”
The goal of the training, prosecutor Timothy Hasson wrote, was “to kill as many people as possible.”