Five people have been arrested in New Mexico after police raided a remote desert encampment and found 11 children living among potential Muslim extremists in “filthy” conditions.
The three women – mothers of the 11 children aged between one and 15 – and two men were all charged with child abuse.
One of the men, Siraj Wahhaj, 39, was wanted in his home state of Georgia for questioning over the disappearance of his three-year-old son, Abdul. Both father and son were last seen in December, when Wahhaj told his wife, Hakima Ramzi, that he was taking the boy to the park.
The boy’s mother told police her child suffered from seizures along with development and cognitive delays.
Documents made public in a court filing on Monday said Wahhaj told the boy’s mother, before fleeing Georgia, that he wanted to perform an exorcism on the child because he believed he was possessed by the devil. Abdul was unable to walk owing to his disability.
Wahhaj’s relatives, including his father, an imam at a mosque in Brooklyn, New York, launched a social media campaign to try and find the missing boy.
The toddler was not found in Friday’s raid, however, which was months in the making.
Police finally went in after the sheriff in Taos, New Mexico, was forwarded a note from someone on the property, given to Georgia police, which read: “we are starving and need food and water.”
Jerry Hogrefe, sheriff of Taos County, said: “I absolutely knew that we couldn’t wait on another agency to step up, and we had to go check this out as soon as possible.”
The sheriff described planning “a tactical approach for our own safety because we had learned the occupants were most likely heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief.”
Relatives’ social media accounts show the Wahhaj family to be devout, but with no evidence of extremist beliefs.
Mr Hogrefe and his men were met by Wahhaj and his colleague, Lucas Morten, who were armed with an AR-15 rifle, five loaded 30-round magazines and four loaded pistols, including one in Wahhaj’s pocket.
The men at first refused to follow verbal direction, police said, during Friday’s day-long operation.
The women – Jany Leveille, 35, Wahhaj’s second wife; Hujrah Wahhaj, 38; and Subhannah Wahhaj, a 35-year-old author of Muslim self-help books – gave themselves up.
Subhannah Wahhaj is married to Morten, a relative told The Telegraph.
When officials finally entered the makeshift compound, in remote northern New Mexico, they found what one officer called “the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen”.
Mr Hogrefe told ABC News the children were hungry, thirsty and filthy.
“I’ve been a cop for 30 years. I’ve never seen anything like this. Unbelievable,” he said.
Police described the compound as a small underground trailer covered by plastic, with no running water or electricity
“They were skinny, their ribs showed, they were in very poor hygiene and very scared,” he said.
All five adults were held in detention in Taos, charged on Sunday with child abuse. The children were taken away for medical tests.
Mr Hogrefe said authorities have reason to believe the boy was at the compound several weeks ago, and they were continuing their search for him.
Morten was additionally charged with harbouring a fugitive and Wahhaj was booked without bond on his Georgia warrant for child abduction.
Sherry Jarrell, an occupational therapist who lives on a 70-acre property not far from where the arrests were made on Friday said the area is beautiful, but residents don’t always know who their neighbours are.
“It’s a great place,” she told Taos News. “But strange people live out on the mesa. People that are trying to get away from things.”
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