A state judge in New Mexico set bail for five defendants in a child-abuse case, over the objection of prosecutors who claim that the defendants were training their own children to conduct terrorist attacks.
District Judge Sarah Backus set bail at $20,000 for each defendant on Aug. 13 and ordered them to wear ankle monitors and meet weekly with their attorneys. She also banned them from using alcohol and firearms.
While prosecutors said in court documents that the defendants were giving firearms instruction to the children, who ranged in age from 1 to 15, “in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit school shootings,” Backus said she wasn’t satisfied that the defendants would be dangerous if released awaiting trial.
“The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot,” Backus said, in rendering her decision. “But the state hasn’t shown to my satisfaction, in clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was.”
Backus was appointed in 2011. Before that, she was a deputy attorney general in California and deputy public defender in San Francisco. She’s a lifelong Democrat and the New Mexico Democratic Party appointed her to head election-protection efforts in 2008 and 2010, The Taos News reported.
Death and Exorcism
The defendants kept their 12 children at a squalid compound in the desert. Law enforcement found the children hungry and wearing rags.
Prosecutors said the defendants performed an exorcism-like ritual on Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, 3, after his father Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, allegedly abducted the boy from his mother in December. The boy couldn’t walk and required constant care because of a condition caused by a lack of oxygen and blood flow around the time of birth.
Defense attorneys said prosecutors sought to criminalize their clients for being black Muslims.
“If these people were white and Christian, nobody would bat an eye over the idea of faith healing, or praying over a body or touching a body and quoting scripture,” defense lawyer Thomas Clark told reporters after the hearing. “But when black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, something evil.”
Prosecutors didn’t appear to have a problem with the “faith healing” itself. While the father put his hand on the boy’s head and recited verses from Quran, the 3-year-old fell unconscious and died, according to prosecutor John Lovelace, who cited interviews with Ibn Wahhaj’s 15-year-old and 13-year-old sons.
FBI special agent Travis Taylor testified that the 15-year-old son recounted one of the adults telling him that the spirit of the dead 3-year-old would return “as Jesus” to direct the group in carrying out violent attacks. Taylor said prospective targets would include “the financial system, law enforcement, the education system.”
Law enforcement raided the compound on Aug. 3 and located one semi-automatic rifle and several guns.
On Aug. 7, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said remains of a child were found at the compound. Relatives believe the remains belong to the boy, though a medical examiner hasn’t yet officially identified the body. Hogrefe testified on Aug. 13 that the body was found in tunnels dug from inside the compound to an opening 100 feet away, the Associated Press reported. No charges have been filed in connection with the death.
For now, the focus of the government’s case remains as 11 counts of felony child abuse filed against each of the defendants.
Clark said Ibn Wahhaj would remain in custody due to a fugitive warrant against him in Georgia, stemming from the cross-country manhunt that led investigators to the New Mexico compound.
All the defendants and the children were related to prominent Brooklyn imam Siraj Wahhaj, 68, and included his son, Ibn Wahhaj; daughters, Hujrah, 38, and Subhanah, 35; son-in-law, Luqman Morton; and daughter-in-law, Maryam “Jany” Leveille, 35.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters, please [pray] for the safe return of our children and grandchildren,” the imam wrote in a Jan. 5 Facebook post.
The imam said he didn’t understand why his son had taken the family and disappeared into the desert, but suggested a psychiatric disorder was to blame.
“My son can be maybe a little bit extreme,” he said, though he added that he never thought he was extreme enough to kill anyone.
The imam leads the Muslim Alliance in North America and was also the former vice-president of the Islamic Society of North America. He’s expressed opposition to extremism.
But his mosque has been connected with Islamist extremists, including a man who later had a role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.
“Wahhaj has espoused support for radical Muslim causes and was an unindicted co-conspirator in the [bombing],” according to a 2011 training material (pdf) for new FBI agents.
He appeared as a defense witness at the trial of the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of plotting terrorist attacks in the United States.
Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March in 2017, called imam Wahhaj her “mentor, and motivator, and encourager” and her “favorite person in this room,” during her speech at the 2017 convention of the Islamic Society of North America.
One relative of the Wahhaj family said that Maryam Leveille, Ibn Wahhaj’s wife, was behind the group’s decision to move into the desert and acted as a religious guru of sorts.
“Mariam is the one who’s practicing that black magic on them,” said Tariq Abdur Rashid, whose daughter is married to Ibn Wahhaj’s brother in an interview with The Epoch Times. The brother and his wife weren’t involved in the New Mexico affair.
Rashid said he saw evidence of Leveille’s performing rituals he recognized as a form of occultism not unusual in Haiti, which he said was Leveille’s country of origin.
He said Leveille convinced Ibn Wahhaj and others that she was a “messiah.”
“She set herself up as the interpreter of God’s word,” he said.
Another person familiar with Leveille confirmed Rashid’s account, though wouldn’t go as far.
“She was doing something that was not right,” said the person, who wished not to be named so as to not antagonize the people involved. “They really believed she was getting revelations from God.”
Clark, the defense attorney for Ibn Wahhaj, told The Epoch Times the case hasn’t progressed far enough yet to determine who was to blame for the group’s moving into the desert.
Leveille‘s attorney, Kelly Goligthley, didn’t immediately respond to a request for a comment.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Correction: The article has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of Jany (Maryam) Leveille.