The Strange Case of Mohdar Abdullah

Did the U.S. government consider designating San Diego college student Mohdar Abdullah (left) as an enemy combatant after the 9/11 attacks?

The suggestion appears in one of several 9/11 Commission memoranda that were recently released by the National Archives and that make it clear that U.S. authorities viewed Abdullah as a major threat. An enemy combatant designation would have allowed President Bush to order Abdullah detained indefinitely in Guantanamo or military brig.

Ten days after the attacks, Abdullah was arrested as a material witness to the 9/11 attacks and shipped off to New York. Prosecutors there considered charging him along with Zacarias Moussaoui, who is serving life in prison for conspiring to kill Americans in the 9/11 attacks but ultimately decided not to.

Commission documents show that Abdullah presented a dilemma for the government, which believed that he knew much more about the attacks than he would admit, but lacked sufficient evidence to support a terrorism charge. Abdullah was charged with visa fraud and deported to Yemen in 2004.

“If anyone in San Diego had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks it would be Abdullah,” one unnamed FBI agent told the Commission.

Abdullah had befriended the two hijackers when they lived in San Diego in 2000 and admitted helping the two men obtain state identification, contacting flight schools on their behalf and translating for them. Abdullah knew the pair had extremist leanings and sympathized with them, according to the 9/11 Commission’s final report. After Hazmi after he left San Diego, he remained in contact with Hazmi.

For three weeks before the attacks, Abdullah had been acting strangely. Several witnesses described him as nervous, paranoid and anxious. He stopped using the phone and didn’t show up at work or school.

On the morning of Sept. 10 at the Texaco station where Abdullah worked, an FBI source reporting hearing Abdullah saying something like, “It’s finally going to happen.” That night, Abdullah wanted to marry a young woman he had met a few months earlier, according to FBI Special Agent Daniel Gonzales.

Much later, Abdullah’s fellow inmates told the FBI that he had bragged to them of advance knowledge of the attacks, but authorities couldn’t substantiate the reports.

Abdullah denied foreknowledge of the attacks.

Gonzales described Abdullah as “a ‘slick’ and charismatic ‘liar.’” The unnamed San Diego FBI agent described Abdullah as a “goofball” and didn’t think he was a willing facilitator for the hijackers.

In their efforts to deport Abdullah, U.S. authorities were “running against the clock,” Justice Department officials told 9/11 Commission staffers in 2004.

Exactly what this means is unclear. The full explanation remains classified, but there’s no doubt that authorities didn’t want to let Abdullah go.

“The fear was a worst-case scenario where the opportunity to deport disappears, criminal charges do not materialize, and Abdullah succeeds in his habeas petition and is walking the streets,” Jonathan Cohn of the Justice Department told Commission staffers.

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