Al Qaeda suspect from N.J. worked at 6 nuclear plants

American held in killing of Yemeni guard

WELL LIKED Sharif Mobley, 26, 'always treated us with respect' and was 'very well-mannered,' said a union manager in New Jersey. WELL LIKED
Sharif Mobley, 26, "always treated us with respect" and was "very well-mannered," said a union manager in New Jersey.
By Geoff Mulvihill
Associated Press / March 13, 2010

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HADDONFIELD, N.J. — An American seized in Yemen in a sweep of suspected Al Qaeda members had been a laborer at six US nuclear power plants, and authorities are investigating whether he had access to sensitive information or materials that would be useful to terrorists.

Sharif Mobley, 26, worked for contractors at plants in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland from 2002 to 2008, mostly hauling materials and setting up scaffolding, plant officials said.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said yesterday that investigations are under way into which areas Mobley entered. But he noted that areas containing nuclear fuel are tightly controlled and a laborer typically would not have access to security information or other sensitive matters.

The plants are also checking areas where Mobley worked to ensure that everything is in order, said NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci.

Mobley, a US citizen of Somali descent, has not been linked to wrongdoing at any of the plants. And officials said nothing he did when he worked there aroused suspicion.

Officials said Mobley passed the necessary screenings, which include criminal background checks, drug testing, psychological assessments, and identity verification.

Nevertheless, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an industry watchdog, said the case raises questions about security at the nation’s nuclear plants.

“The real question is: Was there information that the NRC or utilities could have seen that would have led to his disqualification?’’ Lyman said.

Mobley, a Muslim who grew up in Buena, N.J., was among 11 Al Qaeda suspects rounded up earlier this month in Yemen. He was taken to a hospital there over the weekend after he said he was ill. Yemeni officials said he snatched a gun and shot a security guard to death while trying to escape the hospital.

He has not been accused of attempting to make a bomb or attack a nuclear plant.

His parents have said he is not a terrorist, though former friend Roman Castro said Mobley was becoming increasingly radical in his Muslim beliefs before he moved to Yemen about two years ago.

Mobley worked for contractors at the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear plants in New Jersey from 2002 to 2008; the Peach Bottom, Limerick, and Three Mile Island plants in Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2007; and Calvert Cliffs in Maryland for two weeks in 2006, operators said.

Company officials said most of his work came during periodic refueling outages, when hundreds of contract employees descend on the plants. The workers do “nothing technical,’’ said Curt Jenkins, business manager at Mobley’s union, Local 222 of the New Jersey Laborers Council.

Mobley had “vital access’’ that allowed him into any area of the plants where he worked in New Jersey, Jenkins said. But guards were posted in the most sensitive places.

Every worker entering a plant has to clear security, explosives, and radiation checkpoints, and that information is recorded, Sheehan said.

The plants also teach employees to recognize and report suspicious behavior.

Jenkins said that he never saw a sign of trouble from Mobley and that he was a union member in good standing. “He always treated us with respect,’’ he said. “Very well-mannered.’’

Mobley’s work came during a period in which nuclear plant security was increased after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that before regulations changed in 2003, workers could gain temporary access to plants before their screening was complete. It was not clear if Mobley had access before he was completely cleared.

“To the best of our knowledge, with the regard to this individual, there was nothing to suggest any kind of problem,’’ Kerekes said. “We have a personnel database that’s in place that lets all our companies across the industry know instantaneously if someone is for some reason denied access or flagged for some other kind of reason.’’

However, the information shared between nuclear power companies is sometimes incomplete, said Lyman.

A law enforcement official said Mobley traveled to Yemen with the goal of joining a terrorist group.

A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US government was aware of Mobley’s potential extremist ties long before his arrest.

The official did not say how long the government had been paying attention to him.