Prosecutors and defense attorneys filed dueling motions in Taos County, New Mexico, on Friday – revealed in media on Monday – over the fate of Siraj Wahhaj and the four other members of his Islamist cult, arrested at a compound where they kept 11 starving children and buried the corpse of Wahhaj’s kidnapped 3-year-old son.
Defense lawyers moved to drop all charges against the five adults, while prosecutors asked the judge to reconsider granting them release on bond. Documents filed by the prosecution included new details about the group, including its plans to attack an Atlanta hospital.
Attorneys for Siraj Wahhaj, his sisters Subhannah and Hujrah, his “Muslim wife” Jany Leveille, and Subhannah’s husband Lucas Morten moved for all charges to be dropped because the five have been held for longer than ten days without a preliminary hearing in violation of New Mexico state law. The preliminary hearing has been scheduled for September 28.
In a somewhat surprising development, the felony extradition case against Wahhaj from Georgia for kidnapping his son was dismissed on Thursday, making him potentially eligible for release along with three of the other defendants. Jany Leveille, who has described herself as Wahhaj’s “Muslim wife” and claimed to be the true mother of his son, is an illegal alien from Haiti currently held on federal immigration charges.
The child in question, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, was taken from his mother’s custody in Georgia by Siraj Wahhaj and spirited away to the squalid compound in New Mexico where he later died, evidently because the group was attempting to cure his severe neurological condition with a prayer ritual instead of giving him medicine. The child’s remains were recovered from a tunnel beneath the compound and interred at an Atlanta cemetery on Thursday.
“I am not worried about my son now. I was worried about where he was, who was caring for him, how he was being treated. At least now I know where he is. When I buried him, I felt that he’s now in my heart. He’s here. He’s next to me. I can go visit him,” his mother Hakima Ramzi told CNN on Friday.
“Our legal expert the fact that because a New Mexico judge dismissed the case means Georgia authorities think the charges he faces in New Mexico are more serious,” KOAT News reported on Thursday when the extradition case against Wahhaj was thrown out.
Defense attorneys celebrated the dismissal as good news and filed their motion for all charges of child abuse against all five defendants to be dismissed. The prosecution countered by challenging the controversial decision of Judge Sarah Backus to grant all five release on bond because they posed no imminent threat to public safety.
The prosecution on Friday argued that, on the contrary, the defendants “may suffer from dangerous delusions” and have a history of “endangering the welfare of children.” Furthermore, they said documents recovered from the compound indicate the group was planning to attack Grady Hospital in Atlanta because they felt it was a “corrupt institution.”
The hospital attack plan was found in a booklet written by the group that was actually entitled “Phases of Terrorism.” The document said Leveille, who seems to have authored most of the group’s extreme beliefs and served as its spiritual leader, would confront “corrupt” institutions ranging from the military to schools and demand they accept the sacred truth of her beliefs.
If they refused, group members were instructed to “shoot or otherwise attack the non-believer.” Two of the children recovered from the compound told FBI agents they were being trained with firearms to attack targets including schools.
Among the items recovered from the compound was a DVD containing information on how to build an “untraceable assault rifle,” a book on the psychology of combat, and a letter Siraj Wahhaj wrote to his brother attempting to recruit him as a martyr for jihad. “Take all your money out of the bank and bring your guns,” Wahhaj implored his brother.
Several of the children told agents they overheard defendant Lucas Morton saying he wanted to die as a martyr in a jihad attack. They also said Leveille and Subhannah Wahhaj “would laugh and joke about dying in jihad.”
The “Phases of a Terrorist Attack” document included advice on setting up sniper positions and exploiting “choke points” for mass-casualty attacks. There are also plans for defending jihad strongholds from the police, which was reportedly the purpose of the tunnels running beneath the compound:
Some of the children stated that if police arrived, the group would use the tunnel as an escape route from the main compound while Siraj and Mr. Morton stayed behind and battled with police. The guns located at the exit of the tunnel were stored there in case police arrived, so that as the group exited the tunnel, the group could arm themselves with weapons and ammunition.
The police recovered a journal written by Leveille in which she claimed one of her children is telepathic and capable of engaging in psychic battle with the “jinn” who constantly haunted the heavily-armed group, inhabiting both their bodies and their vehicles. This might help explain why the group was determined to live such a primitive and squalid experience.
According to Leveille’s notes, the jinn caused a number of traffic accidents the group was involved in by taking control of their vehicles, including an incident during their flight from Georgia to New Mexico in which they damaged a gas pump. The group successfully escaped responsibility by changing phone numbers and refusing to give the manager of the gas station enough information to locate them or file charges against them.
Leveille believed Abdul-Ghani’s mother Hakima Ramzi was a sorceress who sent some of these demonic spirits to attack the group, having already used black magic to steal Abdul-Ghani from Leveille’s womb, when Ramzi and Leveille were both married to Siraj Wahhaj in a polygamous relationship.
Leveille claimed Ramzi botched the spell and killed Abdul-Ghani, but his body was inhabited by shayateens (evil poltergeists) who gave him the illusion of life. Leveille believed that once these spirits were driven out, Abdul-Ghani would die again and be resurrected as Jesus Christ. She also thought every member of the group was a reincarnated figure from scripture; Sirraj was Moses reborn, for example, while Leveille herself was Mary.
The group believed Abdul-Ghani’s medicine was a tool of the shayateens that was hindering the cult’s ability to exorcise them. According to the other children, Abdul-Ghani was given no medicine after Wahhaj kidnapped him.
The prosecution was frankly astonished that Judge Backus disregarded the information presented against the cult and ruled there was no firm evidence they were a danger to society. A good deal of the new filing reviews the relevant New Mexico laws and criticizes the judge for applying an unnecessarily strict burden of proof. In one passage of the filing, the prosecutors expressed astonishment that Abdul-Ghani’s corpse and the 11 starving, filthy children were not enough to demonstrate how dangerous and abusive the cult members are.
Another disturbing theme in the prosecution filing concerns the group’s remarkable success at escaping from encounters with law enforcement after traffic incidents. They flipped an SUV in Alabama, damaged a gas pump in Arkansas, and acted bizarrely when they suffered a flat tire in Oklahoma and a police officer stopped to help. In the latter incident, the officer warned them about transporting children illegally in a trailer, but let them go on their way with the trailer still packed full of children. Prosecutors were angry that the group’s success at evading legal accountability was exploited to present them as having clean legal records.
Media coverage of these astonishing revelations was muted, to say the least. CNN was lambasted over the weekend for writing “New Mexico Compound Family Struggled with Life Off the Grid” as its astonishingly soft headline for a story about the group.