While some people, including his parents, interviewed in response to his arrest and capture in Yemen expressed surprise and shock, there were apparent signs that he had radicalized.
Sharif Mobley had strong Muslim views as early as high school. But his old friend Roman Castro knew he had radicalized when he saw him about four years ago.Mobley was apparently picked up in a Yemeni security sweep earlier in March with other al Qaeda suspects.
Castro, an Army veteran who did a tour in Iraq, said Mobley had only these words for him in a chance meeting: "Get the hell away from me, you Muslim killer!"
Now, Mobley is in custody in Yemen as a suspected member of the same branch of al-Qaida that's linked to the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound jet, and stands accused of killing a guard in an attempt to break out of a hospital, officials said Thursday.
Mobley, a former laborer at several nuclear power plants in the U.S., appears to be the latest example of the phenomenon of Americans joining terror movements overseas, which U.S. intelligence officials have warned of.
His case surfaces days after charges of terrorist connections were brought against Colleen LaRose, an American-born woman known as "Jihad Jane" who lived for years in Pennsylvania.
Mobley, a 26-year-old natural-born U.S. citizen, was identified by Yemeni officials as a Somali-American. A former neighbor said he moved to Yemen about two years ago, supposedly to learn Arabic and study Islam.
He was among 11 al-Qaida suspects detained this month in a security sweep in Yemen's capital of San'a this month. He was taken to the hospital over the weekend after he complained of feeling ill. He snatched a gun from a security guard and fatally shot one guard and wounded another before being captured, said Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.
Yemen is again a nexus of al Qaeda activity and the Yemeni government is struggling to deal with the problem. Americans that head overseas for jihad are a significant threat precisely because they hold American passports and are less likely to be scrutinized by security that are often looking at threats from those holding foreign passports from countries known to have active terror groups operating there.
It also turns out that Mobley had worked at several nuclear power plants in the US as a contract worker, including several in New Jersey though he passed a security check in 2008 and had no problems reported by supervisors. I would expect that US intel and law enforcement officials are going to want to know what Mobley said to al Qaeda about those experiences. Considering al Qaeda's intentions to engage in mass casualty attacks, attempting attacks against a nuclear power plant would be a major threat. Expect a reevaluation of security procedures at not only those plants where Mobley worked, but across the nation.