For most families, news that their son has been sentenced to 10 years in Yemeni jail without a chance to present a defense would be heartbreaking. But for the Mobleys of Buena, New Jersey, the ruling against their son comes as a relief. It may just save his life.
Only weeks before the surprise ruling, the same Yemeni judge threatened US citizen Sharif Mobley with a summary death sentence. The judge ignored the fact that Mobley's Yemeni captors hauled him before court without a lawyer for the first time after 20 months of forced disappearance. The murder charges against him carried a maximum punishment of death by firing squad. So the family of the 31-year-old father of three feared the worst.
"I was crying tears of joy when I heard," Mobley's sister Caamilya Beyah told VICE News. "To just know that his life has been spared — the prayers of our family and community have been answered."
The case highlights the chaos of the Yemeni judicial system but also the perils faced by an American abandoned by his government in the country. Mobley has been shot, disappeared twice, abducted, tortured, and survived two bombings of his prison by the Saudi-led coalition in 2015. But neither the Yemeni or US governments have ever given a reason for why Mobley was first abducted in January 2010 or forcibly disappeared for a second time in 2014.
If Mobley ever makes it back home to the US, it will be no thanks to his government. Moreover his story is a microcosm of the fallout from six years of violent US intervention in Yemen in the name of fighting terror.
Mobley's story begins in 2008. Mobley, a Muslim student of Arabic, and his wife decided to move to the Yemeni capital Sanaa so he could pursue further language and religious studies.
G. W. Bush's government had secretly fought Islamic militants in Yemen directly and through the Yemeni government for years. But as the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan consumed the Obama administration, it failed to notice that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was realigning its focus. AQAP had decided to take its holy war against US interests beyond the shores of the Arabian Peninsula.
Soon enough AQAP found a willing foot soldier. On Christmas Day in 2009, moments before his flight landed in Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the "Underwear Bomber," attempted to detonate explosives in his briefs. The detonator failed, sparing 290 lives.
The attempted bombing sent shockwaves through the US government as President Obama admitted there had been a "systemic failure" of the nation's security apparatus. Under pressure to act, US security agencies flooded Yemen with intelligence resources. "Everything related to Yemen is now being ratcheted up," one Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer explained at the time.
As Yemen became increasingly insecure, Mobley and his family decided return home to New Jersey. In need of new travel documents, Mobley sought help from the US embassy. Instead US officials stalled his application and questioned him. They had other intentions.
The US government knew that Mobley had previous contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, an increasingly radical American-Yemeni preacher. Mobley said, through his lawyers, that he had asked Awlaki for advice on his wife's medical care. Al-Awlaki had once been a popular religious figure in the US and reportedly was even invited to the Pentagon for lunch. However, by 2009 he had inspired both Abdulmutallab and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan, who killed 13 people in November of that year. For the US, al-Awlaki had transformed from an inspirational leader to an operational foe.
At the behest of the US administration, the Yemeni government detained dozens of suspects, consigning them to the oblivion of secret detention, interrogation, and torture, according to human rights groups.
"In the last two years of [former President Ali Abdullah] Saleh's reign until 2012, we documented some 700 disappearances, many of them with US fingerprints," said Abdelrahman Barman, formerly senior lawyer at Yemeni human rights organization HOOD. "The US and Saleh turned Yemen into a lawless police station."
Anonymous US officials said at the time that they hoped Mobley would lead them to the radical preacher. So US intelligence tipped off its Yemeni counterparts.
On January 26 2010, Mobley left his home in downtown Sanaa to buy food for his young daughter. Unknown to Mobley, he was being trailed. Outside the store, masked assailants shot him in the leg and bundled him into their van. Mobley later recalled that as his captors beat him, he overheard one report back in English on his cellphone: "Easy."
That night, armed men stormed the family home and strip-searched Mobley's wife and children at gunpoint. His wife contacted the embassy but says staff there denied all knowledge of his whereabouts. Redacted records released by the FBI to Mobley's lawyers at international human rights NGO Reprieve show it had sent agents to interrogate Mobley while he was in secret detention. The Bureau knew exactly where he was.
The US government appeared to have little concern for his fate. In April 2010, a source close to Mobley's interrogators told private intelligence firm Stratfor: "The dude's… going to die here. [The US government] is convinced that [the Yemenis] are going to kill him. Also, he was not part of AQAP. Security simply picked him up on suspicions... They're either going to throw him off a roof (common practice here) or they'll put him face down with an AK round to the back of the head."
Mobley was so badly beaten in secret detention that he ended up in hospital for a second time. But his interrogators would not relent. Mobley told his lawyers that the two US agents threatened him with rape in prison, that his wife would be abducted, and that his children would be put in an orphanage.
On March 7 2010, a firefight broke out in the hospital in which Mobley had been convalescing. His captors alleged that Mobley attempted to escape, killing one intelligence officer and injuring another in the process. Mobley was then transferred to the Central Prison to face murder charges during the alleged escape from hospital. The prosecution file made no mention of how Mobley ended up in hospital in the first place.
On February 27 2014, Reprieve's legal team spoke to Mobley through the wire mesh of Sanaa Central Prison. The time had come to mount his defense. But at the next court hearing, Mobley was not brought before the judge. He would not be seen again for another 20 months and no Yemeni or US official would disclose his location.
In sporadic calls to his wife, Mobley told of how his captors repeatedly beat him and threatened him with death. The officers were from the National Security Bureau, Yemen's notorious intelligence agency, which the US heavily funded after 9/11.
Mobley's family was at first relieved to learn that the State Department had visited him repeatedly through 2014. But relief soon turned to despair when officials refused to tell them and his lawyers where he was. It was "for his own safety" and the "safety of others," one State Department official explained, "because it might leak."
In truth, the US government had conspired to disappear and interrogate Mobley for a second time, as a Yemeni security official later admitted to NBC News. The US government has not explained why.
Meanwhile, Yemen was heading for collapse. In September 2014, fighters of the Shia Houthi rebel movement allied with former President Saleh overran Sanaa and continued their march on Yemen's southern cities. Within months, the Western-backed government led by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had fallen, leading to a full-scale withdrawal by Western diplomats and special forces in March 2015.
Saudi Arabia considered the takeover of large parts of Yemen by the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces, linked to Iran, as a threat to its interests.Days later the kingdom led a high-intensity bombing campaign against the rebels, at times flying up to 100 sorties on a single day. Behind the scenes, US Central Command assisted the bombing by intelligence sharing and vetting strikes from a joint operations center.
Days after Saudi-led coalition bombs began to rain on Sanaa, Mobley managed to get his hands on a cell phone. He called his lawyers and begged for assistance — bombs were falling dangerously close to his prison. A US-vetted strike against Mobley's prison may constitute a war crime, Reprieve told the State Department.
Mobley's lawyers and family were right to fear the worst. In May and June 2015, two Saudi airstrikes hit Mobley's prison, killing 80. For months Mobley's family didn't know whether or not he had survived. The State Department still did not respond to their pleas for information.
Meanwhile, US officials secretly met with Houthi officials in Oman to facilitate the release of detained Americans in Yemen, according to leaked information. Mobley featured nowhere on the agenda. Not only had his government abandoned him — it was completing ignoring him.
One State Department source told Al Jazeera that they had never seen this level of refusal to look into one man's case. "It's a complete wall," the source said.
In November, Beyah received an unexpected call from her brother. Mobley had survived the two bombings of his prison. He was now in the Political Security prison, in shackles and round-the-clock solitary confinement.
The Yemeni court's surprise verdict of 10 years imprisonment on December 16 takes into account time served, which means Mobley should be free to return home in about four years time.
VICE News contacted the US State Department about Mobley's case. It declined to answer, citing privacy reasons. Instead, an unnamed official explained, "the safety and welfare of US citizens overseas is among our top priorities."
As for the Mobley family, they cannot rest just yet. "We worry whether he will ever be allowed to go home, because of the reaction we've had from the State Department every time we've reached out for help. And knowing the role the US government played in his interrogation and the things that were done to him, they were never planning for him to come out alive."
Follow Namir Shabibi on Twitter: @nshabibi. Namir previously investigated counterterrorism abuses at Reprieve.