Former Drexel student Gaafar Mohammed Ebrahim al-Wazer, 24, has been charged with lying on his visa application about his ties to an anti-American rebel group in Yemen called Houthi. Al-Wazer arrived in the United States five years ago on a student visa and temporary protected status application. He attended Drexel University from 2016-17 and studied English as a second language before attending Mount Aloysius College in Cambria County, where al-Wazer was recently arrested.
Drexel University initially informed the FBI with concerns over al-Wazer after discovering an image on a Facebook page showing him in military uniform holding an AK-47 style gun with the caption “He hates all Americans, death to all Americans, especially Jews.” Upon further investigation, more images were found, some of which depicted him going under military-style training in the Middle East.
On his visa application, al-Wazer indicated that he had never been a member of a “clan” or “tribe” or part of a “military, vigilante, rebel guerilla group or insurgent organization.” He also answered “no” to a question asking if he was a danger to the security of the United States.
When questioned by federal terrorism investigators on Drexel’s campus in 2016, al-Wazer denied any connection with the rebel group. He also stated that he had never received military training and said he had never even fired a gun. It is reported by FBI task officer David Bottalico that Al-Wazer asked agents “hypothetically, if he were to conduct an attack, how he would do it, since he does not have the resources.” Despite being questioned in 2016, al-Wazer was not arrested or charged until over three years after the images were discovered and initial investigations conducted.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia on Tuesday had no comment about the length of its investigation. However, investigators said last week at a hearing in Johnstown that al-Wazer had been kept under surveillance for three years before his arrest in Altoona, PA.
In the time between the images being discovered on Facebook and his arrest, al-Wazer studied accounting at Mount Aloysius College in Cambria County. During his time there, he was included on the dean’s list and, according to his LinkedIn profile, worked as an Uber driver.
The rebel movement that al-Wazer was associated with, Houthi, is also known as the Ansar Allah, saying “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, and victory for Islam.”
Yemen has been plagued by civil war for decades, but the conflict intensified in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government against Houthi rebels. The rebels were in support of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The conflict is widely considered to have changed Yemen’s status from a poor nation to the center of humanitarian catastrophe, with an estimated 24 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
The Trump administration has been inconsistent with its policies towards Yemen. It has previously toyed with the idea of labelling Houthi as a terrorist organisation and included Yemen on its 2017 travel ban. Yet the Department of Homeland Security has twice extended temporary protected status to Yemeni nationals in the United States, which al-Wazer took advantage of in 2015 as a Drexel student.
When questioned about the contradicting answers on his visa application in 2015, al-Wazer maintained that he had been truthful but admitted his hate for the Saudi Arabian intervention and the US for funding the military effort behind it.
Al-Wazer will face up to eight years in prison for each count he faces if he is found guilty. The case is being tried in the Eastern Federal District Court in Pennsylvania.