Gafaar Al-Wazer

Gafaar Al-Wazer

A foreign-born Altoona college student is accused of hiding his involvement in an armed anti-American militia based in Yemen to attend classes at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson.

Gafaar Mohammed Ebrahim Al-Wazer, 25, is charged with making false statements to the Department of Homeland Security about his background and training in the Houthi movement – which has been fighting to permanently overthrow Yemen’s government for more than a decade, and is oftentimes at war with Saudi forces.

Al-Wazer has been living in the country legally for more than five years on a government-issued student visa, the complaint shows.

According to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday against Al-Wazer, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security discovered his ties to the military group in 2016, including photographs and Facebook posts showing him with heavily-armed colleagues holding an AK-47 in at least one photo and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in another.

In some images, the military group’s mottos are displayed in banners – calling for “Death to America,” “#DeathtoJews” and “Victory to Israel,” Homeland Security Investigations agent David Bottalico wrote in the criminal complaint.

On at least one occasion, investigators discovered Al-Wazer made efforts to recruit a man into the group online, Bottalico added.

Court documents describe Al-Wazer as a member of a prominent Yemeni family.

The Yemen native described himself as “Anti-Saudi” in a May 2016 interview with federal investigators, but maintained that he and his family do not align with the Houthi movement, which often refers to itself as “Ansar Allah.”

The document indicates his office has been prepared to seek an arrest warrant for Al-Wazer since late May 2016, but an investigation into his activities continued for another three years for reasons the document did not disclose. During that time he attended Drexel University in Philadelphia, the complaint says. 

The investigation 

Philadelphia and FBI Task Force officer Detective Anthony Soliman indicated that his office had also been investigating Al-Wazer for years and said physical surveillance of the man and his residence continued as recently as Wednesday outside his current Beale Avenue residence in Altoona.

Press releases from Mount Aloysius’ college website show Al-Wazer had been attending the Cambria County school as an accounting student since at least 2017, at one point living in the Cresson community as a resident.

He was on the dean’s list in Spring 2017 – and as recently as earlier this year listed York, Pa., as his community of residence.

At one point, he apparently worked as a driver for Uber, a LinkedIn account shows.

Mount Aloysius spokesman Samuel Wagner indicated that the college was alerted about an “off-campus” student’s arrest Thursday morning.

In a one-paragraph response to a call from The Tribune-Democrat about Al-Wazer, school officials indicated they were in “full cooperation” with the investigation and had no additional comment.

Federal custody 

Soliman testified before U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Keith Pesto on Thursday that Homeland Security officials, Immigration Services officers, the state police and Altoona City investigators encountered him at his home early Thursday before taking him into custody.

A Yemeni passport, which would enable him to access his home country, was found in Al-Wazer’s bedroom, Soliman said.

The detective did not indicate if any other evidence was seized at the scene.

No other charges appeared to have been filed against the man as of late Thursday.

Al-Wazer, who told investigators in 2016 that he doesn’t “align with Houthi,” did not comment during his brief appearance in court.

Allegations against him say that he lied when responding to a series of questions on his “nonimmigrant visa” forms and other documents by answering “No” to questions about alignment with the Houthi movement and whether he ever received militia training.

Prosecutors received approval Thursday to have Al-Wazer transferred to the U.S. District Court’s Eastern District, where a preliminary hearing or formal indictment could occur, Pesto said in court.

U.S Marshals took custody of Al-Wazer following the hearing. 

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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