Cairo: A Virginia man said he has been stuck in limbo in Egypt for the last six weeks, living in a cheap hotel and surviving on fast food after his name was placed on a US no-fly list because of a trip to Yemen.
Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year-old Muslim who was born in Fairfax, Virginia to Somali parents, said Wednesday he spent 18 months studying in Yemen and left in early May. The US has been scrutinizing citizens who study in Yemen more closely since the man who tried to blow up a US-bound airliner on Christmas was linked to an al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.
Wehelie was returning to the US with his brother Yusuf via Egypt on May 5 when Egyptian authorities stopped him from boarding his flight to New York. They told him the FBI wanted to speak with him.
He said he was then told by FBI agents in Egypt that his name was on a no-fly list because of people he met in Yemen and he could not board a US airline or enter American airspace. His passport was canceled and a new one issued only for travel to the United States, which expires on Sept. 12. He does not have Somali citizenship.
Wehelie said his brother Yusuf was allowed to return home, but only after he was detained for three days by Egyptian police on suspicion of carrying weapon. He said his brother was shackled to a jail wall and interrogated by a man who claimed to work for the CIA. He was then dumped in the street outside the prison when he feigned illness.
Wehelie said he had no dealings with a terrorist organization while in Yemen and does not see himself as a particularly observant Muslim. He said he was studying information technology at the Lebanese International University in the capital San'a and only visited a mosque a handful of times. He said he had also studied a little Arabic.
"It's amazing how the US government can do something like this," he told The Associated Press from his ramshackle hotel in downtown Cairo.
"I'm cool with all their fighting terrorism and all that, I'm cool with that. I like that, more power to them," he said in American-accented English, wearing baggy basketball shorts and a long white T-shirt.
"My home is America and I don't know why I can't go back there," he said, adding that he even suggested to the FBI to "put me ... in an airplane with a bunch of US marshals or whatever, in handcuffs. Just get me back home."
While in Yemen, Wehelie married a Somali woman whose family had close ties to his own. She remains in Yemen and was to have joined him when he returned home.
His family said Wehelie was never physically abused but subjected to enormous psychological pressure and denied access to an American lawyer his family hired for him.
When he asked the FBI agents how he could return to the US, he said one made a reference to how "Columbus sailed the ocean blue," possibly suggesting he take a sea route.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the bureau does not comment on whether a particular person is on a watch list. While Bresson did not discuss the FBI's interest in Wehelie, he did note several recent high-profile terror plots, including an attempted car bombing and the failed Christmas Day jetliner bombing, as reminders of the need to remain vigilant.
Egyptian authorities confirmed there is a Somali-American stranded in Cairo waiting for his name to be lifted from a US no-fly list.
Wehelie said the US embassy is for now paying the USD 16 a night for his hotel, which he will one day have to reimburse, and gives him coupons to eat at US fast food chains.
First Published: Thursday, June 17, 2010, 09:49