AMALIA, N.M. — Anyone trying to drop out of sight could do a lot worse than the hills surrounding this remote outpost in northern New Mexico, dotted with off-the-grid dwellings. But the sheriff’s office knew something was terribly wrong at one such compound when they received the message.
“We’re starving,” read the desperate plea, which found its way to the authorities.
Executing a search warrant, officers were stunned by what they found last week: 11 children and five adults subsisting in squalor in a decrepit trailer half buried in the high desert. They were well supplied with guns and ammunition and had barricaded themselves behind adobe walls and piles of tires, but were meagerly provisioned with food; the kitchen cabinet guarded some russet potatoes, a bag of pasta and Folgers coffee.
The search of the compound also turned up the decomposing body of a young boy, thought to be that of Abdul Ghani-Wahhaj, 3. His mother had reported that he was abducted last year by his father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, one of the men arrested at the compound. Prosecutors said in a court filing that Mr. Wahhaj was training one of the other children in the use of an assault rifle “in preparation for future school shootings,” as reported by the child’s foster parent.
The glimpse inside the trash-strewn compound has shaken people around this sparsely populated stretch of the mountainous Southwest, focusing scrutiny on Mr. Wahhaj’s ties to a prominent mosque in New York, on little-understood Islamic healing practices and the ease with which renegades can hide out in New Mexico’s backlands.
Mr. Wahhaj’s father, Siraj Wahhaj, is the imam at Masjid at-Taqwa, a mosque in Brooklyn. The elder Mr. Wahhaj said on Thursday that the dead child found at the compound was his grandson, who had a condition that provoked seizures and prevented him from walking. Authorities here said that the remains had not yet been identified.
“Something happened and we’re going to find out what happened,” said the elder Mr. Wahhaj, who was leaving the mosque in Brooklyn on Thursday on his way to New Mexico. “I want the truth to come out, whatever the truth is.”
Pieces of the puzzling tragedy are starting to fall into place.
Hakima Ramzi, the mother of the missing toddler, told authorities that her estranged husband, the younger Mr. Wahhaj, had abducted the boy late last year after saying he was taking the boy to a park in Jonesboro, Ga. Ms. Ramzi said Mr. Wahhaj had taken the boy with the aim of performing an Islamic alternative healing ritual known as ruqya, a form of prayerful meditation which is sometimes thought to mend damage from witchcraft.
Mr. Wahhaj then had a brush with the police in December when the Ford Explorer he was in rolled over on Interstate 65 in Alabama. J.W. Earnhardt, the state trooper at the scene, said he was told that Mr. Wahhaj and others in the vehicle, including two other adults and five children, were on their way to New Mexico to go camping. He told them that he was traveling with his wife, and that they had recently moved to Tuskegee, Ala.
Mr. Wahhaj was heavily armed, with two rifles and three handguns. He had a Kimber 9-mm pistol in a holster on his hip. A Glock .380 and a Smith and Wesson .38 special were in their factory cases, the officer wrote in the report, and were thrown from the vehicle during the crash.
Mr. Wahhaj also had a bulletproof vest, several AR-style magazines and a bag that contained ammunition, according to the report.
“Mr. Wahhaj repeatedly stated that he owned the firearms legally, and was in possession of a valid Georgia concealed-carry permit,” the police report from the accident said. “There were several Qurans on the ground that had been thrown from the vehicle during the crash and a few other books that were written in Arabic.”
After arriving at Shelby Baptist Hospital, the trooper spoke to a female adult passenger injured in the wreck: Jany Leveille, who gave him a different story than Mr. Wahhaj had.
She told the trooper that “they had not moved to Tuskegee, that they had only stayed there overnight,” Mr. Earnhardt wrote. “Ms. Leveille also stated that she and Mr. Wahhaj were not legally married, contradicting Mr. Wahhaj. She then stated that they were traveling from Georgia to New Mexico to see Mr. Wahhaj’s brother-in-law’s land.”
“The stories Mr. Wahhaj and Ms. Leveille told were different and both were vague and did not provide much detail,” according to the report.
After the rollover, they made their way to a plot of land outside Amalia, N.M., a ranching village near the Colorado border with about 200 people. Hispanic settlers founded the remote settlement in the 1840s; to this day, residents still irrigate their fields with water from a tributary of the Rio Grande.
The compound raided by the authorities bears some resemblance to so-called earthships, dwellings made from discarded materials like bottles, tires and empty beer cans, which can be found around Taos. But the makeshift home was shoddier than similar structures, and included a 100-foot tunnel with areas containing bedding, according to an affidavit filed by Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe of Taos County.
The remote compound lies at the end of a bumpy dirt road past the cemetery in Amalia. Aside from a couple of television news trucks, the site was empty on Thursday. Filthy clothes were strewn around the trailer, next to empty boxes of Remington rifle cartridges, operating instructions for Bushmaster rifles, notebooks scribbled in English and Arabic, a bilingual English-Arabic Quran and a third-grade home-schooling textbook.
On the ground outside were battered pairs of children’s shoes, broken bicycles, a basketball net and empty wine bottles. Columns of old tires were placed around the trailer, seemingly as barricades. A knife protruded from a bag containing empty boxes of ammunition.
Neighbors said they were unaware of the activities at the remote site.
“You see a little bit of drugs, a few break-ins, but nothing ever like this,” said Lawrence Montoya, 77, a retired New Mexico state police officer who raises horses at a ranch near the compound. “We don’t see much law enforcement around here. This is a place where people end up who might not want to be found.”
The younger Mr. Wahhaj had already come under the attention of federal law enforcement authorities. In 2005, Mr. Wahhaj was part of an unsuccessful federal lawsuit in which he claimed that he was detained, harassed, fingerprinted and photographed by Customs and Border Protection agents at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York when he was traveling to and returning from Morocco.
Mr. Wahhaj, who represented himself in the case, wrote in one of the filings, “Plaintiff Wahhaj contends that the only reason for the ‘suspicion’ is because he is the son of a famous Muslim imam.”
The elder Mr. Wahhaj has for decades been the imam of Masjid at-Taqwa, which several people connected to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center either attended or visited around the time of the attack. During the investigation of the bombing, the elder Mr. Wahhaj was named on a list of several dozen potential conspirators in the plot, though he was never charged in the case and the list was later criticized for being overly broad, some former terrorism prosecutors said.
In Brooklyn, a spokesman for the mosque, Ali Abdul-Karim Judan, said in a video posted on Facebook Thursday that the news media and the authorities were engaging in “propaganda” by wrongfully injecting mentions of international terrorism and school violence into what amounted to “a domestic situation” in New Mexico.
“They’re not bringing up accurate events — they’re bringing up false narratives,” Mr. Judan said. “Look how this case has turned from a domestic situation, and now they’re trying to create an atmosphere where his son is involved with an extremist radical group.”
The elder Mr. Wahhaj has had a long career as a clergyman, traveling the world and delivering lectures on Islam, and even once gave a religious invocation in Congress.
The authorities in New Mexico have offered few details about the alleged weapons training other than to say, in court papers filed this week, that a foster parent of one of the 11 children at the compound told them that the adults there had trained their child in the use of an assault rifle as part of a “conspiracy to commit school shootings.” At a court appearance on Wednesday, all five defendants pleaded not guilty to child abuse charges.
In his Facebook video, Mr. Judan dismissed the weapons training allegation as “hearsay,” noting that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj was legally licensed to carry firearms in “36 states.”
“All you hear in the media is that they were heavily armed,” he said, adding, “Everybody’s armed in New Mexico. New Mexico is an open-carry state.”
Taos police raided the compound last Friday, after receiving the plea for help, but local and federal authorities were warned months ago that Mr. Wahhaj and his son were at the site. A local couple, Jason and Tanyalyn Badger, told the sheriff’s office in April that they had seen a boy in January and February who they thought was Abdul Ghani-Wahhaj, who had been widely reported as missing. The F.B.I. then conducted aerial surveillance and unsuccessfully tried to identify people at the compound through photographs.
“There was no credible evidence at the time to what they were saying,” said Steve Fuhlendorf, a spokesman for Taos County, regarding the tip from the Badgers. “It would not have been legal to enter the compound without more evidence.”
The breakthrough came last week, when Imam Wahhaj said his daughter Subhana reached a friend in Atlanta, who then called the imam and relayed the message saying they were running short on food. Imam Wahhaj said he contacted the authorities, setting in motion the raid on the compound. Subhana Wahhaj, his daughter, was among the adults taken into custody by the authorities.
In a video interview posted on Facebook on Thursday afternoon, Imam Wahhaj said that last year his son had taken his grandson from his mother and that the Wahhaj family had gone to the police. In recent months, he said, the family learned that the younger Mr. Wahhaj and his grandson were seen in New Mexico.
Imam Wahhaj added that his son had cut off all relations with him, his mother and many of his friends. When he learned this week that the remains of a boy were found at the compound, Imam Wahhaj said he was devastated.
“You can imagine how we feel right now,” he said. “We learned of the tragic death of our grandson. “
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