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Contrasting views of Nagi, a man on the fringes

Two years ago, Arafat M. Nagi threatened to shoot and behead his daughter.

And yet several weeks ago, he proudly gave his daughter away at her wedding. They had patched things up.

Nagi is a man of many faces, according to those who know him.

He is a loner who does not participate in social functions in Lackawanna’s Yemeni community, a Lackawanna elected official said. He is respectful and caring, his ex-mother-in-law said. He started wearing his hair long years ago so that he could pay homage to the Prophet Muhammad, who wore long hair, a relative said.

Except for three known violent episodes – two incidents involving his daughter and a 1990 arrest in which he was accused of stabbing a man in a dispute over 50 cents – Nagi kept a low profile in Lackawanna.

Some say he was on the odd side, keeping to himself and sometimes leaving the city for years at a time.

More recently, he began sympathizing with the most horrific terrorist group in the world, and when the opportunity presented itself, authorities said, he tried to persuade others to embrace the brutality of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL – the group notorious for torturing and beheading its perceived enemies. That led to his arrest Wednesday morning by federal authorities.

The oldest of 10 children, Nagi was the first child born to his parents who came from Yemen to America decades ago in search of a better life. Mohamed Nagi, his late father, had worked at a local auto plant. Nagi’s mother resides on Olcott Street in a two-story home she shares with a number of family members, including Nagi and a younger brother in his 20s who uses a wheelchair. Nagi also has a grown son and a 1-year-old granddaughter.

Federal agents arrived on that quiet, dead-end street early Wednesday morning to take the 44-year-old Nagi into custody and search the family home and detached garage. Authorities say he had been buying combat equipment, allegedly for use in Syria as a fighter for ISIS. His former mother-in-law said that when she heard the allegations against him, she was “dumbfounded.”

‘Disappeared’ for 3 years

As a young man, Nagi married Ahalam Dhali, of Lackawanna, and the couple had a son, Amir, and a daughter, Amira. The marriage was described as typical with occasional strife. But unemployment dogged Nagi. Dhali, who soon began attending nursing school, urged her husband to find work.

“I would hear my daughter say, ‘You need to work,’ and he would say, ‘OK, I’m trying.’ He worked at stores and did odd jobs,” said Asiya Dhali, Nagi’s former mother-in-law.

When the couple was divorcing in the mid-1990s, soon after their daughter was born, there was bitterness between them, but Nagi remained a gentleman to his mother-in-law, she said.

Yet a violent side had surfaced in Nagi some five years earlier, authorities said. He was arrested by police in December 1990 for allegedly stabbing a Buffalo man in the left thigh on South Park Avenue and Alabama Street after a quarrel. He had said the man owed him 50 cents.

But except for an occasional traffic ticket, Nagi stayed out of trouble with the law for years after that, until his name came up during the investigation of the Lackawanna Six, in the months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He was friends with the other young men, but unlike them, did not travel to the al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.

“Around that time, he disappeared from Lackawanna, I’d say for about three years,” said Abdulsalam K. Noman, who represents Lackawanna’s First Ward on the City Council and who had once coached Nagi from age 8 to 12 before the boy quit the Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club.

Nagi was never charged in connection with the Lackawanna Six.

Several years ago, Nagi again was on law enforcement’s radar screen.

At 9:30 p.m., June 24, 2011, while living with his mother, he had noticed his then-16-year-old daughter. Amira Nagi told Lackawanna police she had been dropped off at a grocery store by her aunt and was coming out of the store on the 100 block of Wilkesbarre Avenue when the alleged attack occurred.

The police report states: “When she exited the store, she was attacked from behind where her father punched her in the back of the head causing a lump. She stated she got dizzy and her vision got blurry. She then tried to get back in the vehicle, where he grabbed her legs and continued striking her, stating he was going to kill her.”

Stormy relationship

Nagi also sent threatening texts to his ex-wife.

“Her mother did receive texts from suspect stating he was going to break the victim’s legs and that it was not over. Suspect fled scene and could not be located,” the police report said.

But six days later, Lackawanna police caught him. He was charged him with third-degree assault, menacing, and harassment.

The father and daughter, according to the former mother-in-law, had a turbulent relationship, though specific reasons for the trouble were not known.

At about 4:10 p.m., July 8, 2013, Nagi again went after his daughter, this time outside a relative’s house on Ingham Avenue in Lackawanna.

“… [H]er father pulled up and displayed a knife to her … victim ran inside the house and called 911. The above listed offender told the reporting person (the daughter) he was going to shoot and behead the victim,” police stated. Nagi was apprehended in his car a few houses away and police confiscated a “large knife” from him.

Several weeks ago, the Nagi gave his daughter away at her wedding ceremony, which the ex-mother-in-law said, was held at the Nagi family’s Olcott Street home.

“He gave his daughter away. She got married about six weeks ago. I was happy he gave her away,” Asiya Dhali said.

Noman, the city councilman, went out of his way Wednesday afternoon to point out that Nagi has very little standing in the community and that his former wife has no involvement with him.

“His ex-wife is a very respectable lady who has nothing to do with him,” Noman said. “He would talk to people but he was mostly by himself. His brothers are great.”

Dr. Khalid J. Qazi, president of Muslim Public Affair Council of Western New York, said Nagi, at some point in the past, might have assisted law enforcement.

“This individual may have had some issues, and may have testified for law enforcement at some point, maybe for the prosecution. My understanding is they have been shadowing him for a while, and therefore I am really surprised he was able to travel to Turkey twice,” Qazi said. Qazi pointed out that U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. credited the community’s responsiveness in being able to arrest Nagi.

Shock in community

“The Lackawanna community has been under a microscope for quite a while,” Qazi added, “but despite that, it has been in the forefront in making sure homeland security is not compromised in any way. When you look at the facts of the case, you will realize there is no connection between this individual and the community.”

Anwar Alkalai, president of Lackawanna Islamic Mosque, and the Imam Council of Western New York, also put distance between the Muslim community and Nagi.

“We condemn with the strongest words every act of terrorism, or plans to commit terrorism by any individuals or groups, no matter what their background or beliefs.

However, I would like to emphasize the actions of the individual arrested this morning represent himself only, and not the Muslim community,” Alkalai said.

But the shock of what Nagi is accused of continued to resonate in the community throughout Wednesday. For some, it was hard to believe that this man, born in Western New York, could be a terrorist in waiting.

“Honestly and truly, I don’t see him as anything like mean or monstrous,” Asiya Dhali said. “He’s very kind to his mother and his brothers and sisters.”

News Staff Reporter Mark Sommer contributed to this report email: