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FBI says Moroccan on expired visa plotted drone bombings

The FBI has arrested a Moroccan on suspicion of lying on immigration documents, which wouldn’t necessarily be news, except that he also is suspected of plotting to blow up a school and a government building by attaching a Southern California-made bomb to a drone.

The purported threat came to light this week in the affidavit of an FBI agent seeking to arrest 26-year-old El Mehdi Semlali Fahti. On Monday, a federal judge in Connecticut ordered Fahti held without bail.

He has not been charged with any terrorism-related crimes.

According to the affidavit filed by the FBI’s Anabela Sharp:

Fahti arrived from Morocco on a student visa in January 2008. But in his second semester, he flunked all of his classes at Virginia International University in Fairfax. The university immediately revoked his visa, but Fahti didn't leave the U.S.

A December 2010 arrest on suspicion of trespassing landed him in the Secure Communities program meant to deport immigrants lacking legal status if they commit crimes.

As he sat in a Virginia jail cell, Fahti expressed resignation to his inevitable deportation until a fellow inmate, a Nigerian, offered him an idea: Request refugee status.

Fahti’s alleged plotting appears to have begun at a library computer. During the span of three months, he read State Department reports about his native Morocco. He learned of the civil unrest that had been happening during his teenage years -- events that he apparently hadn’t paid much attention to at the time.

Federal law requires asylum to be sought within one year of arrival in the U.S. But there's no time limit on seeking the similar “withhold from removal” status. All he had to do was prove a "clear probability" that a return to Morocco would lead to persecution based on his beliefs.

On his immigration visa application to the State Department back in 2007, he said that he had never been arrested or convicted of any crimes.

But five years later, as he sought to stay in the country, he divulged to an immigration judge that he had been arrested as a college student in Morocco. Fahti said he had protested against the government and that police had beaten him on two occasions.

He added that he would be persecuted upon return because he remained a wanted man for his membership in antigovernment and human rights groups.

U.S. agents found no record of his arrest or of any college attendance in Morocco. And they said that some of the dates of protests he provided didn’t match up with government records in Morocco.

While out on bond in December 2012, Fahti was arrested on suspicion of theft in Los Angeles.

Appearing before an immigration judge in Los Angeles in August 2013, Fahti made statements that conflicted with what he had put on his refugee application. But at the end of the hearing, Fahti was granted his reprieve from deportation.

But in January, the FBI learned about Fahti’s supposed “aspirations to bomb an educational institution outside of Connecticut.”

The FBI recorded three of Fahti’s conversations with “third parties” in February and two more in March. Speaking in Arabic, Fahti admitted fabricating his refugee story and laughed in disbelief about how the judge believed him, the FBI affidavit says. 

Fahti, who had moved to Bridgeport, also began to speak about bombing a federal building in Connecticut, the document says. On the recording, Fahti said the three things that scare Americans are harm to schools, the economy and their sense of security.

He also said that secret funders, some of them drug dealers, would pay for a bomb made in Southern California, according to the affidavit.

He would deliver the bomb using a remote-controlled toy plane, it said. Agents found wires and pliers in his Connecticut apartment that, he said on one of the recordings, were parts for a bomb.

Fahti’s case next heads to a grand jury, which will decide whether to indict him on accusations of making a false statement, falsely swearing under oath and falsifying declarations to a federal immigration judge. The grand jury could also indict him on terrorism charges. 

The Executive Office of Immigration Review, which includes immigration judges, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Times. The FBI and Fahti's public defender, Paul Thomas, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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