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News / Nation & World

Jury selection set to open in terrorism trial of extended family stemming from 2018 New Mexico raid

By MORGAN LEE, Associated Press
Published: September 25, 2023, 9:25am

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Jury selection is set to open Monday in federal court as members of an extended family face kidnapping and terrorism charges stemming from a raid of their squalid New Mexico encampment in 2018 by agents seeking a sickly, missing 3-year-old boy.

The boy’s badly decomposed remains were eventually found in an underground tunnel at the compound on the outskirts of Amalia near the Colorado line. Authorities allege the family engaged in firearms and tactical training in preparation for attacks against government, tied to an apparent belief that the boy would be resurrected as Jesus Christ and provide instructions.

An exact cause of death was never determined amid accusations that the boy was deprived of crucial medication linked to disabilities. Federal prosecutors opted for kidnapping charges.

Two men and three women have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to support planned attacks on U.S. law enforcement officers, military members and government employees. They also deny the kidnapping charges leveled against four of the defendants.

Albuquerque-based U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson has set aside four weeks for the trial, with dozens of witnesses scheduled to testify.

A grand jury indictment alleges Jany Leveille, a Haitian national, and partner Siraj Ibn Wahhaj instructed people at the compound to be prepared to engage in jihad and die as martyrs, and that another relative was invited to bring money and firearms.

Defense attorneys have said their clients would not be facing terrorism-related charges if they were not Muslim and that prosecutors are highlighting speculative and imagined theories about terrorist activities.

Potential jurors are being surveyed on their opinions about the Islamic religion, Muslims and alternatives to traditional medicine.

The grandfather of the missing boy is the Muslim cleric Siraj Wahhaj, who leads a well-known New York City mosque that has attracted radicals over the years, including a man who later helped bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.

Siraj Wahhaj could not be reached immediately by phone or email, but previously said his son and namesake is high-strung but not an extremist, and his two detained daughters are the “sweetest kinds of people.”

Sheriff’s deputies and state agents arrived in August 2018 to find the defendants with 11 hungry children living without running water or sanitation at the encampment encircled by berms of tires with an adjacent shooting range. They reported seizing an assortment of guns and ammunition, authorities said.

FBI interviews with the children led authorities to the boy’s remains.

The boy, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, was reported missing by his mother in Georgia in December 2017. Around that time, authorities say, the boy’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, set out with relatives and a cache of guns on a car journey to rural Alabama and then to New Mexico to start over on a parcel of high-desert scrubland near a tiny, crossroads town.

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Prosecutors plan to present evidence that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille performed daily prayer rituals over the boy, even as he cried and foamed at the mouth, while depriving him of crucial medication.

They say the boy’s dead body was hidden and washed for months in the belief by Leveille that it could one day return as Jesus Christ, who would explain what corrupt government and private institutions must be eliminated. In the 2018 raid, authorities reported seizing handwritten journals, laptops, phones and video of tactical training from the compound.

The five defendants — including sisters Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhanah Wahhaj, and Subhanah’s husband, Lucas Morton — were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, providing material support to each other as potential terrorists amid tactical drills at the New Mexico compound. Morton, Leveille and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj additionally were charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. government personnel.

Kidnapping charges also were filed against four defendants but not Siraj Ibn Wahhaj because of his legal status as the deceased boy’s father. Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Morton have waived their right to legal counsel and will provide their own defense in court.

Defense attorneys have called the FBI’s theories about terrorism activities at the Amalia compound speculative and unfounded. They also said there were no specific threats to the general public or individuals and that incriminating information was coerced from children in cooperation with child protective services.

The trial was delayed repeatedly over the course of five years during the COVID-19 pandemic and deliberations about the mental competency of the defendants.

It was unclear how Leveille would proceed as the trial opens. Earlier this year, she signed a tentative agreement with prosecutors to accept a reduced sentence on weapons charges that was not immediately authorized. In March, Leveille provided a notice of her intent to rely upon a defense of temporary insanity.

Leveille came to the U.S. in 1998 and stayed on a visa and work permit that later expired and immigration authorities denied an application for permanent residency.