A police raid on a dilapidated and armed compound a week ago in the remote New Mexico desert raised a mountain of unanswered questions about the 16 people found living in squalid conditions with reported ties to Muslim extremists.
Authorities are currently waiting for confirmation that the remains of a toddler found at the compound are those of a missing Georgia boy. Abdul-ghani Wahhaj, who would have turned 4 on Monday, was not among those found last week on the property outside Amalia, N.M., about 10 miles from the Colorado border. Police arrested five adults—including the boy’s father and four other adult family members—and took 11 children ages 1 to 15 into custody.
Investigators returned to the 10-acre property this week after interviews with the arrestees led them to believe Abdul-ghani might still be there. On Monday, officials found the body of a young boy, about the age of Abdul-ghani, buried in a tunnel under the compound.
The abduction and apparent death of the boy seem to be a part of a fractured family feud. Abdul-ghani’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, reported her son missing last December. The boy suffered from seizures and could not walk. Ramzi said her husband, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, had taken their son from their home near Atlanta and not returned. Wahhaj reportedly told her he wanted to perform an exorcism on the child.
Police found Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, on the property last week, along with his two sisters, Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35; his brother-in-law, Lucas Morton, 40; and Jany Leveille, 35, a woman identified as his wife (seemingly a second wife). The women are believed to be the 11 children’s mothers.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj is the son of Siraj Wahhaj, a well-known imam in New York who has boasted of connections to groups that support terrorism, for which police have long monitored his Brooklyn mosque. The elder Wahhaj posted a message on his Facebook page in January asking for help finding his grandson and later posted a video by Ramzi begging for her son to be returned. In an interview on Thursday, Wahhaj told reporters that family members had confirmed to him the remains found Monday in New Mexico were his grandson’s, but law enforcement have not confirmed that.
Critics are claiming law enforcement sat on their hands too long in this case.
Morton apparently bought a tract of land in New Mexico in 2016 but accidentally built the compound late last year on the property of his neighbor, Jason Badger. This week, Badger told reporters he had pressed authorities for months to remove the suspicious group from his acreage, but to no avail. A judge dismissed an eviction notice filed in June.
The FBI had conducted surveillance on the property for signs of Abdul-ghani in recent weeks but said there wasn’t enough evidence to raid the compound. Last week, Georgia detectives received a message they believed originated within the compound saying that children were starving inside. The elder Wahhaj on Thursday said he sent the message to law enforcement after a friend of his daughter sent it to him. Georgia authorities forwarded the message to officials at the Taos County, N.M., Sheriff’s Office, who decided to conduct a raid last Friday.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said the raid was carried out without incident, and officers found the adults and hungry children living in “the saddest living conditions and poverty” he has seen in 30 years in law enforcement. Wahhaj and Morton were armed with an AR-15 rifle, four loaded pistols, and five loaded 30-round magazines. Old tires, wooden pallets, and a mud wall studded with broken glass barricaded the compound. Hogrefe called the adults on the compound “extremist of the Muslim belief.”
Prosecutor Timothy Hasson filed court documents alleging Wahhaj had conducted weapons training with the children, preparing them to commit school shootings. All five defendants pleaded not guilty to child abuse charges in Taos County court Wednesday. A judge ordered them all held without bail pending further proceedings.
But Taos County public defense attorney Aleks Kostich said on Wednesday he was not certain about the credibility of the school shooting claims, which came from a foster parent of one of the 11 children removed from the compound.
The actions of Wahhaj and his family members—weapons stockpiling, weapons training, and connections to a security company as a possible cover—are reminiscent of extremists linked to his imam father. Ryan Mauro, a security analyst with The Clarion Project, a nonprofit group that studies Islamic extremism, said the FBI should have acted earlier, possibly saving the boy’s life.
“If the FBI’s standard for action requires evidence and danger even greater than what was known about the New Mexico compound, then its standard must change,” Mauro said.