Instead, while on his way home in early May, Wehelie was stopped while changing planes in Cairo. It turns out he had been placed on the U.S. government’s no-fly list. From that moment until last weekend, Wehelie, a graduate of Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, was stranded in Egypt, shuttling between a $16-a-night Cairo hotel room and a windowless room at the U.S. Embassy. There, he said, FBI special agents fed him Oreos and chips and told him he might never see Virginia again.
In his first extensive interview since his return home July 17, Wehelie said the FBI peppered him with questions about possible ties to terrorists. In about six exhausting sessions over his 11 weeks in Egypt, agents made Wehelie log his daily activities dating back several months. They asked whether he was a “devout” Muslim. They probed about connections he might have to Islamic radicals, including Sharif Mobley, an alleged al-Qaeda recruit from New Jersey whom Wehelie met on a street in Yemen.
And then their tone changed, morphing into entreaties to help protect his native land: Might Wehelie consider being a mole in the Muslim community when he got home?
“I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life,” Wehelie said, dressed in loose jeans and a striped Ralph Lauren shirt. “I listen to rap. I play basketball. I watch football. I wasn’t brought up the way these crazy people [terrorists] are brought up. I just want to live on with my life. I don’t want to be an informant. I want to work for an IT company. I want to be a normal person.”
Wehelie — who says he was in Yemen because his mother sent him to learn Arabic and find a Muslim wife — sees his experience as what could be described as a Kafkaesque ordeal in which he agonized for weeks over how to prove that he was no threat to his native land. But the government says it must maintain a tight watch over those who may have had contact with known terrorists, and Yemen has been a special point of concern in law enforcement circles of late.
Since Christmas, when a Nigerian man who had trained in Yemen tried to blow up an airplane landing in Detroit, about 30 Muslim Americans have been restricted from leaving, returning to or traveling within the United States, according to a log kept by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“Several recent high-profile attempted terror plots against U.S. targets, including the attempted Christmas Day attack and the Times Square incident, remind us of the need to remain vigilant and thoroughly investigate every lead to fend off any potential threats,” said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, who declined to address Wehelie’s case specifically. “The American public correctly demands that of us.”
Bresson said the “FBI is always careful to protect the civil rights and privacy concerns of all Americans. . . . We are very mindful of the fact that our success in enforcing the law depends on partnerships with the Muslim community and many other communities.”
Federal prosecutors in Alexandria and the FBI are still investigating Wehelie, according to his attorney, Tom Echikson. The family met Thursday with government officials, but Echikson would not discuss the talks. He said he is trying to get Wehelie removed from the no-fly list.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the U.S attorney’s office in Alexandria, said he could not confirm or deny any investigation into Wehelie’s activities.
Wehelie’s parents, Shamsa Noor and Abdirizak Wehelie — Somali immigrants who studied at the University of the District of Columbia — said they had been worried about the second-oldest of their six children, who they thought seemed adrift.
Yahye Wehelie had dropped out of Norfolk State University. By 2008, when he was working as a DHL delivery man, his parents urged him to learn Arabic so he could launch a more lucrative career and maybe find a Muslim wife.
Wehelie, who likes playing Xbox video games and reading Slam and Sports Illustrated magazines, pushed back.
“I was thinking, no, I didn’t want to do it. . . . I didn’t need to go to a foreign country to learn no foreign language,” he said. “I was scared. I went on YouTube to see some clips of Yemen and didn’t like what I had seen. I was like, man, this place is in the Stone Ages. I got mad. I actually got depressed.
“How could I match up with someone in Yemen?” Wehelie remembered complaining. “They won’t understand American culture. I was going to have to man up.”
In October 2008, Wehelie boarded a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight from Dulles and was soon ensconced in Yemeni society. He enrolled at Lebanese International University in Sanaa, the capital. He rented a one-bedroom apartment, played basketball and visited Internet cafes. Soon, he found a bride, a Somali refugee a few years his junior. Maryam was the sister of a friend of a friend — a nurse.
He thought she was cute. They both liked spaghetti and walks in the park. More important, she made him curious about his Somali heritage.
“Other women who want to meet Americans are like, ‘Oh, he’ll bring me back to the States,’ ” he said. “She wasn’t like that. . . . She wanted her Somali culture — and I wanted to get back to that, too.”
A year after Wehelie arrived in Yemen, the couple married. Some of his family showed up, including his youngest brother, Yusuf, who wound up staying long-term. Guests danced to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The couple posed in their wedding attire — Yahye in a dark suit, Maryam in a gown with flowing train — for souvenir photographs emblazoned with the words “With Love.”
Soon, Wehelie got homesick. He wanted to return to the United States to file for permission to bring his wife home. Early this May, he and his brother boarded an EgyptAir flight to Cairo, where they expected to switch to a flight to New York.
But at the Cairo airport, airline officials told the brothers they couldn’t make the transfer. They were directed to the U.S. Embassy.
Mystified, the brothers jumped into a cab, thinking the detour would last half an hour and they’d still make their flight. But at the embassy, they were told to wait, go get some lunch. When the brothers got back from Hardee’s, they were told that FBI agents from Washington were flying in to see them.
Wehelie borrowed a cellphone and called his mother to say he might be delayed by up to four days. The brothers shuffled off to the nearby Garden City House Hotel, paying with money the U.S. government lent them. The brothers were given coupons for fast-food restaurants and plenty of time to check out the Nile and the Pyramids. After a few days, Yusuf was cleared to go home, but Yahye had to stay.
Wehelie said he met with two FBI agents in a small room at the embassy. The agents — a man and a woman — asked a barrage of questions: Do you pray every day? Have you ever met the following people? He took a polygraph test. He handed over passwords to his e-mail and Facebook accounts.
“The FBI, you think they’re smart, but these people . . . they’ll ask you the stupidest questions that are so irrelevant,” Wehelie said. “I am cool with them trying to make screenings safe for my country and all U.S. citizens. I just think in my case, it took a little longer.”
Back home in Burke, where the walls are decorated with artwork featuring the Koran, Wehelie’s mother said she “felt guilty. I would wake up at 3 a.m. and pray to God to help me. I sent him there to be a better person for this country.”
But in Cairo, the FBI’s questions seemed designed to examine her son’s possible ties to people with very different loyalties. When they showed Wehelie photographs of radicals, one looked familiar, if only vaguely. It was Sharif Mobley, a U.S. citizen accused of killing a hospital guard in Yemen after Mobley was arrested in a sweep of suspected al-Qaeda militants.
Wehelie told The Washington Post that he met Mobley once at random in Sanaa on Hadda Street, a popular spot for foreigners, but knew nothing about his past.
“I don’t consider myself knowing this guy,” he said. “I met him outside on Hadda Street. He came up to me and said, ‘Are you American?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ ‘Well, cool dude, where are you from?’ It was small talk.”
As his sessions with the FBI wound down, Wehelie said, agents asked whether he might attend mosque services in the Washington area and report back on potential terrorist plots or security threats.
“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know,’ ” he said. “It was very weird. I don’t think that’s right.”
Finally, on July 17, Wehelie was allowed to fly to New York, but because he’s still on the no-fly list, he could not continue on to Washington, so his parents picked him up at John F. Kennedy International Airport and drove him home. By morning, he was back playing video games on his Xbox.
Now he wonders whether he’ll see the female FBI agent again. In Egypt, she told him she’d like to take him out for a meal — “for a chitchat”– when he got home.
“I said, ‘Cool, it depends on if I have free time,’ ” Wehelie recalled. “I didn’t want to be rude. I am willing to talk if it coincides with my schedule.”