ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Jurors on Tuesday convicted a father of terrorism charges in a case that stemmed from the search for a 3-year-old boy who went missing from Georgia and was found dead hundreds of miles away at a squalid compound in northern New Mexico in 2018.
Prosecutors told jurors that the boy’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, and other members of his family had fled with the toddler to a remote stretch of the high desert so they could engage in firearms and tactical training to prepare for attacks against the government. It was all tied to an apparent belief that the boy would be resurrected as Jesus Christ and provide instructions.
Jurors reached their decision after deliberating for two-and-a-half days.
In a case that took years to get to trial, jurors heard weeks of testimony from children who had lived with their parents at the compound, other family members, firearms experts, doctors and forensic technicians. The defendants, who are Muslim, argued that federal authorities targeted them because of their religion.
Wahhaj’s brother-in-law also was convicted of terrorism charges, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and kidnapping that resulted in the boy’s death. Wahhaj’s sisters were convicted on the kidnapping charges.
The badly decomposed remains of the boy were eventually found in an underground tunnel at the compound on the outskirts of Amalia near the Colorado state line.
An exact cause of death was never determined amid accusations that the boy, who lived with severe developmental disabilities and frequent seizures, had been deprived of crucial medication.
Prosecutor George Kraehe said during closing arguments last Thursday that the boy — Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj — was at the heart of the case and he urged everyone in the courtroom to remember the toddler’s name. He repeated it while turning to look at the defendants as the boy’s mother, Hakima Ramzi rushed from the courtroom in tears.
Prosecutors recounted the hurried journey the four defendants and their children took from Georgia to Alabama and eventually New Mexico. They left nearly everything behind, including other family members who sent numerous texts, emails and social media messages pleading with them to bring the boy home.
“They were running and hiding because they knew what they had done was wrong,” Kraehe told jurors.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj’s partner — Jany Leveille, a Haitian national — was initially charged with kidnapping and terrorism-related charges, but instead reached a plea agreement on weapons charges. She did not appear at the trial.
Prosecutors argued Leveille was charting the group’s course based on messages that she received from God, detailed in passages in a journal.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj represented himself in court. He told jurors that the federal government was presenting a false narrative and that they needed to consider only the facts as they deliberated his fate and that of his two sisters and his brother-in-law.
“The government portrayed me to look like a monster,” he said, explaining that his family was close-knit and they were trying to protect his son from evil spirits. He said they used a ritual known as ruqyah in which passages from the Quran are recited.
He told jurors it was one thing to be able to defend one’s self from a physical attack, but that a spiritual attack — which he believed was happening to his son — required prayer.
Defense attorneys for Hujrah and Subhanah Wahhaj told jurors that they played no role in the boy’s death and were only at the compound to care for their own children as they endured inhospitable conditions that included cold temperatures and harsh winds. They talked about how one of the women searched the internet to find information on trapping squirrels and birds, so the family could eat more.
Prosecutors argued that the women were part of what they described as a “sick end-of-times scheme” that evolved after the boy’s death, and that they had “an avalanche of evidence” against all four defendants.
The defendants adopted what prosecutors called “a number of unique beliefs that set them on a dangerous path.”
A sentencing date has yet to be scheduled.
According to prosecutors, the charges related to kidnapping resulting in death carry a mandatory life sentence. The charges of providing support in preparation for terrorist attacks on U.S. government officials and employees are punishable by up to 15 years in prison, while the charge of conspiracy to kill a government officer or employee carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.