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Ex-Drexel student charged with hiding past training with anti-American rebels in Yemen

Drexel officials alerted the FBI in May 2016, after discovering a photo Gaafar al-Wazer they say posted on his Facebook page depicting him outfitted in military fatigues and holding an AK-47 type rifle under the caption: “He hates all Americans, death to all Americans, especially Jews.”

Drexel University Dragon at 36th and Market.
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Federal terrorism investigators have charged a former Drexel University student with hiding his ties to the anti-American insurgency group that has embroiled Yemen in a protracted and devastating civil war.

Prosecutors said Gaafar Mohammed Ebrahim al-Wazer — a 24-year-old Yemeni national who arrived in the United States five years ago — lied on his application for a student visa and later other immigration documents about his association with the Houthi rebel movement, also known as Ansar Allah or “Supporters of God.”

Drexel officials first alerted the FBI in May 2016, after discovering a photo posted to his Facebook page depicting him in military fatigues and holding an AK-47-type rifle under the caption “He hates all Americans, death to all Americans, especially Jews,” according to court filings.

Investigators would later discover other social media posts, including ones they say depict him undergoing military-style training with Houthi fighters in mountainous, barren regions of the Middle East.

One photo, released by the Houthi movement’s official propaganda outlet, purportedly shows al-Wazer, mouth open in a triumphant yell, brandishing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. A flag held by another man in that photo bears the Houthi slogan: “God is Greater. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse on the Jews. Victory to Islam.”

When confronted by federal terrorism investigators on Drexel’s campus in 2016, al-Wazer denied having any association with the Houthi movement and maintained he’d never fired a gun or received any combat training, the records show.

He asked agents “hypothetically, if he were to conduct an attack, how he would do it, since he does not have the resources,” FBI task force officer David A. Bottalico wrote in the affidavit of probable cause for al-Wazer’s arrest.

It was not immediately clear why prosecutors waited more than three years after that interview and the discovery of his Facebook posts to charge al-Wazer.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia on Tuesday declined to answer questions about the length of its investigation. But at a court hearing in Johnstown, Pa., last week, investigators said al-Wazer had been kept under surveillance until his arrest Thursday at his current home in Altoona.

In between, he left Drexel — where he had been participating in an English language immersion program from spring 2015 to summer 2016 — moved halfway across the state and enrolled as an accounting student at Mount Aloysius College in Cambria County.

There, he made the dean’s list three years running and also worked as an Uber driver, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was scheduled to transfer schools yet again next semester and had enrolled to take classes at California University of Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, a spokesperson for that school said.

Al-Wazer remains in custody and is being transferred to Philadelphia to face potential charges of visa fraud and lying to federal agents, authorities said.

Yemen’s protracted civil war has been classified by international aid organizations as the world’s largest ongoing humanitarian crisis — one that has left more than 24 million people, more than two-thirds of the country’s population, in dire need of humanitarian assistance since 2015.

That year, Houthi rebels stormed the nation’s capital, Sana’a, ousted its government, and sent the nation’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and other officials fleeing to neighboring Saudi Arabia for asylum.

Since then, the Saudi government — with backing from the United States — has sought to beat back the insurgents with sustained bombing raids. The crisis has displaced more than 3.6 million people, killed more than 7,000, wounded scores more, and led to one of the worst cholera epidemics ever.

The administration of President Donald Trump has at times appeared conflicted in its policy toward Yemen. It has flirted with designating the Iranian-backed Houthis as a terrorist organization and included Yemen in its original 2017 travel ban.

Yet, the Department of Homeland Security has twice extended temporary protected status to Yemeni nationals, a measure that protects those already in the United States from removal back to their war-torn nation.

Al-Wazer sought such a designation in 2015, while he was a student at Drexel. His application for the program is one of the sworn documents now central to the case against him.

Prosecutors say that while his social media profiles were allegedly riddled with Houthi slogans and depictions of him carrying high-powered weaponry, he repeatedly answered “no” to questions on the application asking whether he’d ever received military training, been part of a paramilitary group, or joined an organization that threatened to use a weapon against another person.

He provided similar answers on his 2014 visa application to study English in Austin, Texas, the document he used to enter the U.S. that year, they said.

Asked by agents about this apparent contradiction in 2015, al-Wazer insisted he had been telling the truth, but admitted he hates Saudi Arabia for its intervention in his country’s politics and blames the U.S. for funding that military effort, court documents say.

If convicted of lying on his visa paperwork, he could be sentenced to up to eight years in prison for each count he faces.

A spokesperson for Mount Aloysius said the college is “in full cooperation” with the investigation.