Talking terrorism in small-town U.S.A.
BUENA, New Jersey — The last town you’d expect to be a hothouse of terror is the first place I stop for gas on a drive to New York. It’s a semi-rural crossroads in the flatlands of South Jersey, population 3,873, known for its plump blueberries and piney woods, and now famous as the native soil that fertilized yet another alleged home-grown, America-hating, would-be Islamic avenger named Sharif Mobley.
Two years ago, Mobley vanished into the radical rats’ nest of Yemen, ostensibly to “study Arabic.” Two weeks ago, having been arrested over yonder in a sweep of al-Qaida renegades, the Jihadist Jersey Devil resurfaced — to America, and to his chagrined family — after reputedly murdering a hospital guardsman when the man set down his gun to wash himself and pray.
Shot him right in the face, the news reports said.
“The 26-year-old American of Somali descent has a level of training and cunning characteristic of the terror network,” noted the Associated Press.
“I can tell you this: He’s no terrorist,” Sharif’s father countered, at home on Plymouth Street in Buena. And his mother said, “He’s never been in trouble.” He is now.
Doomsday prophecies of domestic “sleeper cells” and lone-wolf warriors seemed to be fulfilling themselves in rapid order. Mobley’s unveiling came just a few days before the arraignment of a blonde from Pennsylvania named Colleen LaRose — a.k.a. “Jihad Jane” — on charges she had scavenged the Internet for allies with whom to commit attacks on the infidel West.
The fact that Sharif Mobley had worked as a labourer at six nuclear power stations in the United States before his departure also did not go unnoticed. It was easy to imagine him tiptoeing out of the plant with plutonium in his pockets; Homer Simpson gone over to the Dark Side.
Despite all of this, here is your brave correspondent, now, all by himself in Buena, New Jersey, which is pronounced “b’YOO-nah,” which is not surprising, given that Cairo, Illinois is KAY-ro and, Eldorado, Texas, where all those polygamist Mormon wives in bonnets were rounded up a couple of years ago, is el-doh-RAY-duh.
“Do you know Sharif Mobley?” I ask the first native b’yoonan I encounter. He is a very pleasant fellow named Andy Rodriguez, age 23, who is working at the Wawa petrol station while studying to be a professional physical trainer.
“He was one of my closest friends in high school,” the gas jockey replies.
We chat for a while about the boys’ time together at Buena Regional High School, home of the Chiefs, where young Sharif used to show off his karate skills and do backflips off the cafeteria wall at lunch.
“He was real outgoing,” Rodriguez says. “He was the kind of person who liked to be the centre of attention. We used to impersonate our favourite wrestler. Sharif was always The Rock, and I was Stone Cold Steve Austin.
“He was a real cool kid, maybe a little arrogant, but in high school you see that a lot. I knew he was a Muslim, and he’d talk about his religion, but he wasn’t trying to push his religion on anybody else.”
“How did you feel when you heard he’d been arrested as al-Qaida terrorist in Yemen?” I asked.
“Shocked,” says Andy Rodriguez. “I talked to a lot of the people we went to school with, and they never would have suspected. My brother graduated with him, and he never suspected either.” What’s the lesson here?” I ask. “Apparently you never really know who you really know,” Andy Rodriguez replies.
I ask Rodriguez to characterize little Buena, New Jersey, and he calls it “just a quiet town, not a lot of crime.” But then I grab a newspaper at the Wawa and stop for lunch at the lovely Villa Fazzolari. Here, I discover that the front-page in The Daily Journal, in addition to an article about Sharif Mobley ( Buena terror suspect used prayer as ruse), contains one report about a local bowling alley that has been burned down by an arsonist, and another one headlined Man shot in downtown Vineland.
“So this is where that al-Qaida kid came from!” I announce to the house while eating my delicious penne marinara.
“Actually, that’s our second terrorist,” a woman at the bar says drily. “We had another one a couple of years ago.”
And she’s right: six Muslims were caught near here in 2006 while planning to attack the military base at Fort Dix and “kill as many soldiers as possible.” Fort Dix is only 40 miles from Plymouth Street in Buena, New Jersey.
“It must be something in the water,” the woman says. Hearing this, I switch to bottled tea.