Are We Safe?

The arrest in Yemen of a former Jersey nuclear plant worker has raised serious security questions. The bottom line: Can we protect ourselves from homegrown terror?

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.

Tucked away on the mud flats of the Lower Delaware River, far from almost everything and surrounded by miles of marsh grass and reeds, is one of the most secret spots in the state.

Until recently, a young African-American man from South Jersey named Sharif Mobley was allowed past armed guards and inside this high-security complex time and again, and that has a lot of people worried.
They are concerned because the place Mobley had access to was PSEG’s Salem/Hope Creek nuclear complex, one of the largest concentrations of nuclear power in the United States. The enriched uranium cores of its three domed reactors create steam that turns turbines that generate the electricity to help operate the Sinatra jukebox at Leo’s Grandevous in Hoboken, light the “Trenton Makes” bridge sign over the Delaware and power nearly half of everything that runs on electricity in the state.

Most of the millions who depend on the plant have never set eyes on it. But Mobley knew it well. He grew up not far away in Buena (pronounced BYOO’nah), a small town near Vineland, in the sparsely populated heart of South Jersey. Mobley wrestled for the Buena Regional High School Chiefs and, after graduating in 2002, was helped by his father to join the laborers’ union, which gave him a shot at one of the highest-paying jobs around for a kid with no plans to attend college.

Whenever Salem’s reactors are shut down for refueling, contractors hire laborers who do the maintenance and repair work that can’t be performed when the generators are operating. For the job, Mobley was required to go through a background investigation that included a criminal-history check, drug testing, credit check and a psychological assessment. He also received basic training for dealing with radiation emergencies. Once he got what’s called a red badge (it’s actually outlined in blue), he would flash it to enter the complex. Then he’d pass through metal detectors and a bomb sniffer and swipe a card through an electronic reader to get into the protected area, where he had unescorted access to most everything but the reactor control rooms.

The job paid well—more than $25 an hour—and Mobley became a kind of nuclear migrant worker. If there was no work at Salem, he also had red badges that got him into four other plants in Pennsylvania and Maryland as they shut down for refueling. But Salem was his home base, and from 2002 to 2008 he worked there a total of 76 weeks.

The money from PSEG helped him plan for a life far from rural Buena. Raised a Muslim, he did in 2004 what is required of every devout Muslim—he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Things moved quickly after that. In 2005 he married Nzinga Saba Islam, a woman from Philadelphia who belonged to a mosque there. They had their first child, a girl, in 2007. They changed mosques as they changed residences and planned for a big move.

Mobley told family and friends that he wanted to experience authentic Islam. Some were not surprised. After the trip to Mecca, he seemed different, more strident, even belligerent. He reportedly told coworkers at the union hall, “We are brothers in the union, but if a holy war comes, look out.” He was seen checking a website with a picture of a mushroom cloud. Back in Buena one day he ran into a classmate who had just returned from service in Iraq and called the soldier a “Muslim killer.”

The young family left for Yemen in July 2008, and, after renting a flat in the capital city of Sana’a, Mobley went to see a cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki is well known on the Internet for his powerful sermons in perfect English. But his message has become increasingly radical. Last year, President Obama stirred up controversy by targeting American-born Awlaki for death.

Mobley’s contact with Awlaki triggered a string of events that led to Mobley’s imprisonment in Yemen, suspected of having links to Al Qaeda. He is awaiting trial on charges that could lead to him being shot through the heart in a public square.

One of the lawyers representing Mobley is Cori Crider, a young Harvard Law graduate with a streak of ’60s righteousness who works with the British legal-action group Reprieve representing Guantanamo detainees, individuals picked up in clandestine terror sweeps and others. She says Mobley denies passing along information about the nuclear plants to a terrorist group or sympathizing with terrorist ideology.

The tragic tale of how a young man from South Jersey ended up so far from home on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is a dramatic sign of how much the world has changed since 2001. “We’re safer now than we were in 2001, but we’re not safe enough,” says former Governor Thomas H. Kean, who served as chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

There’s no doubt that New Jersey today is better prepared to prevent a terror attack and has a vast array of emergency responses ready in case mayhem slips through. But scholars and civil rights lawyers say that whatever turns out to be the truth behind Sharif Mobley, he may represent a difficult new stage in the war on terrorism. The gravest threat today, they say, comes from radicalized homegrown terrorists who, with their U.S. passports, can move through American society unnoticed and get into places that foreigners can’t. If Mobley was being recruited by Awlaki, then another would-be terrorist has been identified. But if his claim of innocence is true, then those attempts to protect ourselves may be causing another kind of threat—a weakening of the liberties we once held sacred.

Mobley was just beginning his senior year at Buena Regional when the Twin Towers came down. Although New Jersey itself had not been hit, more than 600 New Jersey residents who commuted into the city were killed, and hundreds of rescue workers came back from ground zero with scarred lungs. Before the smoke cleared at the World Trade Center site, the state realized it was woefully unprepared to protect its vital resources.

The list of potential targets was long: bridges, tunnels, airports, rail lines, ports, chemical factories, nuclear plants and big public gathering spaces. The stretch between Port Newark/Port Elizabeth and Newark Liberty International Airport was called the most dangerous two miles in America because it holds so many easily accessible targets. The New York-New Jersey Harbor, the largest petroleum hub in the country, suddenly was viewed as an invitation to terror. The state’s chemical industry presented hundreds of high-value targets, including what some consider the most hazardous of all—Kuehne Chemical, right below the Pulaski Skyway in Kearny, where pressurized chlorine is stored. An attack on the plant could release a poisonous chlorine cloud that would spread over a radius of 14 miles, with 12 million residents potentially in its path.

Michael R. Greenberg, a professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, says that in 2001 officials did not fully understand the risks the state faced. But after years of study, training and physical improvements, that’s changed. “We are much better at risk management now,” he says. “We have a very densely populated state, so it’s natural to assume that a terror attack or any acute event is more likely to occur here than other places in the U.S.”

Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the state legislature created the Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force to recommend policy changes. Dr. Clifton Lacy, commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Health and Senior Services from 2002 to 2004, has been a member of the task force for most of the last decade. He now is director of the University Center for Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response, a collaborative initiative among UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, RWJ University Hospital and Rutgers University.

Lacy says the most dramatic change since 9/11 has been in the mind-set of officials. Before 9/11, “nobody really codified who was in charge.” In the last decade, that’s been turned around as attention has focused on command, control and communication.

The effort to create a structure of state security has had false starts, most spectacularly when Governor James McGreevey appointed Golan Cipel to be special counsel for homeland security even though Cipel was an Israeli citizen who could not get security clearance from the American military. (McGreevey’s personal relationship with Cipel later contributed to the governor’s resignation.)

Despite that setback, the infrastructure of vigilance has improved. In 2006, the state established the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, which works with the State Police and county and local law enforcement. The office is headed by Charles McKenna, who was the U.S. Attorney liaison to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force on 9/11.

“I worry about three things,” says McKenna, a soft-spoken man with understated self-confidence. “I worry about manmade terrorism. I worry about industrial accidents. And I worry about natural disasters,” especially hurricanes.

McKenna says that the state is better prepared to maintain vigilance and respond to hazards. “We’re much more aware as a society than we were, and I think we’re better prepared operationally because we have better equipment, we’re better funded now and I think we’ve been doing a lot of training and a lot of planning.”

Consider Newark Liberty International Airport. Anyone who has flown out in the last 10 years knows that security there has intensified. While changes in the state’s transit network, the third-largest system in the country, are not so evident, authorities say security has been tightened considerably. Most measures are secret, but surveillance cameras are everywhere, including at overnight storage yards. The rail lines themselves are under constant closed-circuit scrutiny.

Still, Senator Frank Lautenberg has been a vocal critic of security lapses at the airport and what he views as insufficient vigilance on the rail lines and lax enforcement of regulations at the port. He successfully fought to toughen the laws on security at New Jersey’s chemical plants beyond post-9/11 federal standards.

With emergence of the threat of homegrown terrorism, the screening of employees has become another priority, but systems that have been put in place are far from perfect. After 9/11, the federal government imposed a mandatory employee-screening program to protect maritime ports, including the Port of New York and New Jersey, the third largest port in the country. A scathing report released May 10 by the Government Accountability Office found several holes in the way dock workers and cargo handlers are screened. Undercover agents with phony IDs were able to get clearance to sensitive areas, raising the chilling prospect of terrorists having access to the millions of cargo containers coming into the port from all over the world.

“Given the critical importance of our ports,” Lautenberg said at a May hearing on port security, “it is unacceptable that we are spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on a program that might actually be making ports less safe.”

At nuclear power plants, the screening of workers was made far more comprehensive after 9/11, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has required the industry to maintain a centralized database for cross-checking background information on workers, including contract workers like Mobley who move from plant to plant. An inspector general’s review of the screening procedures following Mobley’s detention recommended that the NRC be given greater access to that database, which the industry has provided.

The report also suggested that employees be required to disclose information about foreign travel, like Mobley’s time in Yemen.

Because the nuclear industry is so heavily regulated, its system of screening employees is stricter than that of any other industry. But some experts believe the nuclear operators are not doing enough to make certain that their employees can be trusted. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says background checks of nuclear workers are nowhere near as extensive as the investigations done to get government security clearance. He’s also worried about the length of time that unescorted-access clearance lasts. All nuclear workers with unescorted access must go through a thorough background investigation every five years, regardless of their employment history. But a loophole in the system lets that authorization remain valid even if an employee has not worked at a plant for up to three years. “That’s enough time to go for training in Yemen,” Lyman says.

Outside the nuclear industry, employee screening is a patchwork of standards. There is no centralized database to cross-check applicants, although names can be run through the FBI and Homeland Security Terrorist Screening Database, usually called the Terrorist Watch List. (Mobley’s name did not appear on the list when he applied for his red badge.)

All of this vigilance could raise questions about possible discrimination based on race or religion, but companies that operate nuclear plants do not single out specific groups—such as Muslim employees—for additional scrutiny, says Chris Earls, director of security for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. Law enforcement officials say that profiling the members of a particular group does not even make sense because domestic terrorists can come from any background, ethnic group or race. “We don’t profile people,” says McKenna of the Homeland Security office. “We profile conduct.”

The threat of homegrown terrorists is not restricted to those who apply for jobs at sensitive locations. Often as not, the individuals behind acts of terror have used their American identities to slip unnoticed into the everyday life of the state. In 2007, authorities broke up a ring of six local men who planned to attack and kill soldiers at Fort Dix; the six are believed to have links to Anwar al-Awlaki. And in March of this year, Mohamed Alessa of North Bergen and Carlos Almonte of Elmwood Park pleaded guilty to conspiring with Al Shabaab, a terrorist group in Somalia, to kill Americans.

As for Sharif Mobley, McKenna agrees with the NRC and PSEG that the former maintenance worker did not possess information that could threaten the Salem complex. PSEG is confident that the $120 million in security enhancements it has made to Salem since 2001 adequately protect the facility. And like every other plant operator overseen by the NRC, PSEG has had to tighten up screening in recent years. The NRC keeps most of those enhancements secret. But it is known that plant operators have been required to improve the training of all employees to make them better at detecting signals from coworkers who act suspiciously or exhibit troubling behavior—like Mobley’s comments about holy war and his visits to websites that endorse violence.

Despite claims by McKenna and PSEG that Mobley did not represent a threat, his former presence at Salem still makes some people uneasy. They say that, even if he didn’t have access to the operating systems, he could have passed along details about security arrangements that would help terrorists sabotage the reactors. Charles Faddis, a former CIA agent, wrote in the New York Times that tampering with the cooling system could be enough to trigger a nuclear meltdown. “All it takes is information on perimeter security,” he wrote, “information Mr. Mobley possesses about every plant where he worked.”

By the last week of January 2010, Sharif Mobley knew that the political situation in Yemen had deteriorated so much that it was time to get his family back to the United States. What he didn’t know was that American authorities were going to accuse him of skipping most of his language classes during the preceding year so that he could devote his time in Yemen to helping Anwar al-Awlaki’s jihad.

Yemen had not turned out the way Mobley had planned. After just a few months, his wife had developed health problems, and the family flew home. While she recuperated, he found work at one of the nuclear plants; PSEG and other officials could not confirm whether this was the Salem facility. The family returned to Yemen at the start of 2009, and in November, Nzinga gave birth to a boy, their second child.

As the year came to an end, a series of events changed everything. In November, a Muslim Army psychiatrist who had extensive communication with Awlaki went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, the underwear bomber tried to blow up a plane en route to Detroit. He too had been in contact with Awlaki. Yemen was now viewed as a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists.

According to his lawyers, American law enforcement had not been keeping tabs on Mobley and only got interested in him when he went to the U.S. embassy in early January to get a passport for the baby so the family could leave for home. He ended up being interrogated by the FBI about his time in Yemen and his relationship with Awlaki. He tried several times to straighten things out, without success.

Mobley’s entanglement with the law in Yemen started innocently enough on the morning of January 26 in Sana’a. He needed to go to the corner store for diapers and groceries. He bought what he needed and stopped for tea. Two white vans pulled up, and eight armed men dressed in black tried to grab him. When he managed to squirm out of their reach, they shot him, hitting him in the leg. The men scooped him up, threw him into the back of the van and drove off.

Weeks went by before Nzinga found out that Mobley had been taken to a hospital, where doctors put pins into his shattered leg. Crider says Mobley was repeatedly interrogated there by two American agents who pressed him about Awlaki and made it clear that, unless he cooperated, his whole family would be in big trouble.

Crider believes that Mobley was picked up by the Yemenis at the behest of American intelligence agencies, held illegally and interrogated repeatedly without any evidence that he was actually involved in terrorism. She describes this as “proxy detention” and says it has become a troubling American policy. Another New Jersey resident may have been caught in the same system. Amir Meshal, a Muslim from Tinton Falls, now 28, had moved to Somalia in 2006 and was picked up there in a sweep of foreign terror suspects.

Jonathan Hafetz, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall, who is representing Meshal, says his client was sent to a secret prison in Ethiopia where he was interrogated by American law enforcement agents. Meshal was released in 2007 without being charged with any crime. He returned to New Jersey and is now suing the FBI agents who interrogated him.

For Hafetz, these detentions are troubling signs that our attempts to fight terrorism may be putting cherished liberties at risk. “There are so many instances of policies where we’ve sacrificed individual liberties in ways that erode our values without enhancing our security,” he says.

After three or four weeks in isolation in the Yemen hospital, Mobley was scared and confused. He was transferred to a different hospital in Sana’a in early March. According to the Associated Press, while there he befriended one of his guards, pleading to have his handcuffs removed so he could join in Muslim prayers. The guard unshackled him and then turned to start the ritual washing before prayers, putting down his weapon. Mobley grabbed the gun and tried to escape, allegedly killing the guard who had helped him and wounding another before being recaptured.

Crider saw Mobley for the first time several weeks later during a meeting with the Yemeni prosecutor at the Sana’a prison.

“They brought him out blindfolded, with shackles on his hands and legs,” Crider recalls. He was taller than she expected, with a full beard and dressed in a tattered, tan robe. He wore dusty sandals and was limping on the leg where he’d been shot. Crider learned that the charges being considered by the prosecutor included murder, attempted murder and membership in a terrorist group. But she sensed something odd.

“The moment we started asking questions about any terrorism charges, the prosecution had nothing to say,” she says.

Crider found that Mobley had a kind of goofy spirit that belied his age and his muscular frame. He liked doing character voices and spent time watching Japanese cartoons on Arab TV. He asked her for pizza and, if she could find it, a blueberry donut. She brought pizza to the next meeting but couldn’t track down a donut.

The attorney concedes the difficulty of Mobley’s case. Crider says Mobley openly admits that he contacted Anwar al-Awlaki several times about domestic and religious matters, but never jihad. She says during his hospitalization, Mobley was desperate to rejoin his family—but was unaware that Nzinga had gone back to the United States.

Last November, Crider returned to Yemen to prepare for Mobley’s trial. He was never formally charged with having ties to a terrorist group, and his case had been moved from the security court to the criminal court. He is still facing murder and attempted murder charges, but technical issues have delayed the proceedings.
Crider says that every American ought to be outraged by the way Mobley has been treated. “I understand that U.S. intelligence feels pressure to gather information and question people,” she says. “But this is not someone who has been hiding out in the mountains. He presented himself at the embassy many times. Why not just arrest him? That’s what I have the hardest time with. He is a U.S. citizen. I like to think the Constitution is a compact with a citizen no matter where that citizen is.”

The killing of Osama bin Laden reignited the debate over the delicate balance between civil liberties and security. Intelligence gathered from detainees at Guantanamo and in “enhanced interrogations” reportedly played a critical role in tracking down the terrorist leader. Former-governor Kean used the spectacular raid to renew the 9/11 Commission’s call for creation of a Civil Liberties Board to make sure that security measures intended to keep us safe do not put our liberties at risk.

“People can rush into these things if they think their personal safety is threatened,” Kean says, “but they might ask for things that change the country and the things we value in fundamental ways.”

The true story of Sharif Mobley and what he was up to in Yemen is not yet known. His mother, Cynthia, declined several requests to have members of the family interviewed. But she did indicate that she is appalled by the mob mentality that, she says, has already judged her son to be a nuclear terrorist because he is a Muslim.

“It seems as if the main interest of everyone is to look at the bad side of everything,” she says. “Nobody wants to give him the benefit of the doubt or to give him the respect due to him as an American citizen.” The State Department says the embassy in Sana’a is providing “all appropriate consular assistance.” The FBI, as is its practice, neither confirms nor denies that it is investigating Mobley.

Crider says that now that the Americans and Yemenis appear to have lost interest in pursuing terror charges against Mobley, her primary concern is keeping him alive. Although she won’t discuss possible outcomes in the case, under Muslim tradition, the guard’s family could seek a payment of so-called “blood money” instead of demanding Mobley’s life in exchange for the life he allegedly took.

Mobley, now 27, already has paid a high price for our post-9/11 vigilance. Whether he is, as accused, a would-be radical with murderous intent, or as he insists, simply more collateral damage in this long war on terrorism, his troubled life since 2001 can be seen as part of the true cost for our new sense of safety and security.

There’s no doubt that in the years to come we will continue to enhance our vigilance and create new methods of tracking down our enemies, no matter who they are or where they come from. But as we do our best to protect ourselves, we face an equal challenge of protecting the very rights and values that make us Americans.

Anthony DePalma is the writer in residence at Seton Hall University and author of City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance and 9/11 (FT Press, 2010).

Click here to read about a Jersey-grown system that tracks underwater threats.

Click here to read about improved communications systems in post-9/11 New Jersey.

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