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Ohio Terror Suspect Abdirahman Mohamud Said He Was 'Chilling in Istanbul'

Abdirahman Mohamud told a high-school buddy he was on vacation. But investigators say he traveled to Turkey to join an al Qaeda affiliate.
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/ Source: NBC News

Last May, Ohio college student Mohamed Elrayah decided to check in through Facebook with an old high school friend from Columbus, a Somali immigrant who loved basketball and was nicknamed "Bones" because he was so skinny.

He sent off a message and to his surprise got a reply a few days later from his pal, Abdirahman Mohamud, saying he was in Turkey.

"I'm chilling in Istanbul," Mohamud wrote, according to Elrayah. "Just vacation."

According to federal prosecutors, though, the young man wasn't there to enjoy the minarets and bazaars. Istanbul was just a way-station on a Byzantine journey from a Midwest college town to the battlefields of Syria.

The goal was to follow in his big brother's footsteps and join al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department, court papers say.

But six weeks after Mohamud arrived in Turkey and was bundled across the border by handlers, his brother was killed in battle, and he was on his way back to Ohio.

He returned, an indictment says, with a plan: to use the weapons and explosives training he got in Syria to attack a military facility or a prison and execute Americans.

Those court papers paint a portrait of Mohamud, 23, that is unrecognizable to Elrayah. The "Bones" he remembers from Whitehall-Yardley High School was "the most normal kid."

"He did normal things — basketball, go to the park, go to the movies on Fridays," he said. "Everyone loved being around him. He was a nice person."

Elrayah, who was three years ahead of Mohamud in school, said he didn't seem particularly religious then. He recalled running into him in 2011 and noticing he was growing a longish beard.

"I asked him about it and he said, 'Well, I'm kind of religious now,'" Elrayah recalled, adding that there was nothing to suggest his devotion had crossed a line into extremism.

When Elrayah heard that Mohamud had been indicted on federal charges last week, he was floored.

"I would like to ask him, 'What happened?' I just keep thinking, 'What happened to this kid?'" he said.

Mohamud is the latest in a growing string of U.S. residents charged with joining a terrorist organization — from blood-thirsty ISIS to Somalia's militant al Shabab — though only a handful are accused of returning to plot attacks on American soil.

The court documents say that Mohamud's older brother, Abdifatah Aden, went to Syria and joined al Nusra before him, in August 2013.

A 17-year-old cousin who lives in the United Kingdom said Aden "wanted to help out the oppressed Muslims there" and said he and Mohamud did not hate the United States.

"He loved Americans," he said of Mohamud, with whom he was in regular contact through Facebook. "He was one of them."

Mohamud has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer said outside court last week that the conflict in Syria had "nothing to do with the United States" and suggested that grief over his brother's death may have played a role in whatever he said to government informants.

A third brother, Abdiqani Aden, was arrested while Mohamud was being held on state charges and accused of making a threatening gesture toward a guard during a prison visit.

Hassan Omar, director of the Somali Community Association of Ohio, said he did not know the three brothers but met their mother in 1998 when she took English classes. He said she was widowed last year.

"It's tragic for her," he said of Aden's death and Mohamud's arrest.

But it's also a source of concern for the larger Somali community in Columbus, which Omar estimated at 50,000 immigrants and their native-born children. That makes it the nation's second-biggest Somali community after Minnesota, where a half-dozen men were indicted this week for allegedly supporting ISIS.

"We came barehanded from refugee camps. We created 4,000 businesses in Columbus. We have 3,000 or 4,000 kids who have graduated from high school and college," Omar said.

"We have neighbors, classmates and co-workers who are American and culturally they knew us as hard-working people and a business-minded society — and this reflects badly on us.

"This kind of terrorist, or ISIS or Shabab is destroying our image."