Citing his opposition to America’s involvement in a brutal civil war in his native Yemen, former Drexel University student Gaafar al-Wazer abruptly withdrew his application for legal U.S. residency in the days before his arrest this month and then attempted to schedule a visit to the White House, prosecutors said Thursday.
His actions alarmed U.S. terrorism investigators, who had been surveilling al-Wazer for years. They feared that his recent behavior — combined with photos that had surfaced of him at military-style training camps in the Middle East — suggested he had become an imminent threat.
“If the United States is not supporting peace in my country, how is it going to help me when I am in its homeland?” al-Wazer allegedly wrote in an October letter to U.S. immigration authorities. “I am not in need to you. I have Allah with me.”
Those details of al-Wazer’s actions in the days leading up to his arrest emerged in government court filings this week seeking his detention until trial on charges of lying to the FBI about his ties to anti-American rebels in Yemen.
The documents depicted al-Wazer as a growing security risk who, despite coming to the United States to learn English five years ago, had become increasingly disillusioned and violent during his time here — so much so that Drexel suspended him in 2016 after a threatening confrontation with professors.
But the filings also provide the first answers to a question that has hung over al-Wazer’s case from the start: What prompted the FBI to finally detain him more than three years after Drexel administrators first raised concerns about his conduct?
“Given his rejection of [legal residency last month] and his declared reliance on Allah, and his recent desire to tour the White House, one of the most prominent symbols of his enemy the United States, the questions of al-Wazer’s intentions cannot be ignored,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson S.T. Thayer Jr. wrote in court papers this week.
At a bail hearing Thursday in Philadelphia, U.S. Magistrate Judge Marilyn Heffley ordered al-Wazer detained in deference to government arguments that he posed too great a threat to be released. His attorney, Peter J. Thompson, declined to comment after the proceeding.
Al-Wazer has remained in U.S. custody since Nov. 7, when FBI agents arrested him at his home in Altoona, where he had been attending Mount Aloysius College since leaving Philadelphia in 2016.
That year, staff in the English language program he was enrolled in at Drexel expressed concern over al-Wazer’s Facebook page, which featured photos that appeared to show him holding automatic weapons under a caption that read: “He hates all Americans, death to all Americans, especially Jews.”
By the time FBI agents showed up to interview him that afternoon, al-Wazer had allegedly deleted the posts and then maintained he had no ties to the Houthi rebel movement, an anti-American insurgency currently locked in a protracted war with U. S-backed Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen.
Still, prosecutors said, he expressed sympathy for the Houthis and told agents that the U.S. involvement in controversial bombing raids the Saudis have undertaken in Yemen disgusted him.
The FBI ultimately let him go. But Drexel moved to suspend al-Wazer that day.
When a detective told him he could not return to the campus, he allegedly refused to leave, pushed his way into a classroom, and began “angrily and stubbornly” confronting the staff.
Prosecutors said the incident so unnerved al-Wazer’s teachers that one fled the building.
It was not the first time he had become violent with university staff, prosecutors say. In 2015, he allegedly assaulted a professor during a student conference. Describing that incident in filings this week, Thayer wrote: “Despite being warned that security would be called, [al-Wazer] forced his foot in the classroom door as the professor tried to close it.”
What happened in between 2016 and his arrest in Altoona this month remains hazy.
Enrolled at Mount Aloysius, in Cambria County, he made the dean’s list three years running and worked as an Uber driver, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was set to transfer to California University of Pennsylvania next year, a spokesperson for that school has said.
But the FBI kept up its surveillance of al-Wazer and continued to investigate his social media history. By 2017, they had discovered a trove of anti-American memes and photos that appeared to depict him training with Middle Eastern rebels and brandishing high-powered weaponry, like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Not only had he appeared to have trained with the Houthis somewhere in the Middle East, where his brother and wife live, he also attempted to recruit others in the U.S. over Facebook to join the movement, prosecutors said.
“During much of the time he has spent in the United States since 2014 — while enjoying its freedoms, privileges, and material comforts, and availing himself of its institutions of higher learning — al-Wazer has demonstrated a deep hatred for this country,” Thayer wrote in court filings, “a hatred that is eluctably bound to his explicit and unwavering support for … the Houthi movement.”
But it was al-Wazer’s sudden desire to tour the White House days after withdrawing his application for temporary protected status — an immigration designation that allowed him to legally remain in the U.S. while war continued to ravage his country — that prompted Secret Service agents to deny his request for a visit and drew the FBI to his home.
“Al-Wazer is of course entitled to hold and lawfully express his political and religious opinions as freely as anyone else in this country, no matter how hateful or odious they may be,” Thayer wrote. “However, al-Wazer is not entitled to lie about those beliefs when asked about them by U.S. immigration and counterterrorism officials.”
If convicted, al-Wazer faces up to five years in prison and will almost certainly be deported after his release.