Nuradin Abdi completed his prison sentence last month and is in federal custody in Louisiana while final preparations are made to return him to Somalia.
The Justice Department accused Abdi of suggesting a plan to shoot up an unidentified Columbus shopping mall during an August 2002 meeting at a coffee shop with two friends, both of whom were later convicted of terrorism charges. Early reports indicated the threat might also have included bombing a mall.
When investigators learned of the threat in spring 2003, authorities conducted top-to-bottom searches of Columbus malls late at night after shoppers had left, looking for possible explosive devices. None was found.
One of Abdi's friends at the coffee shop that day, Columbus truck driver Iyman Faris, pleaded guilty in May 2003 to terrorism charges stemming from allegations that he scoped out the Brooklyn Bridge for destruction at the behest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks.
The second friend, Christopher Paul, a convert to Islam who grew up in the Columbus suburb of Worthington, was charged with plotting to bomb European tourist resorts frequented by Americans, as well as overseas U.S. military bases. Paul also pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges. Both Faris and Paul were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Abdi, 40, entered the U.S. in 1998 and received political asylum based on false statements, according to federal court records.
A cellphone salesman, he was arrested the day after Thanksgiving 2003 without a warrant, with FBI and immigration authorities worried he might carry out an attack on Black Friday, the busy shopping holiday.
U.S. Immigration Judge Elizabeth Hacker in March 2004 ordered Abdi deported to Somalia after determining that Abdi lied on his asylum request. That order was delayed during Abdi's criminal proceedings.
Abdi disputed the charges against him and was prepared to go to trial, then abruptly decided to plead guilty in summer 2007 to one count of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, a conspiracy that included the mall plot. His attorney alleged it would be impossible to get a fair trial in post-9/11 America. Abdi received a 10-year prison sentence with credit for more than four years already served.
The shopping mall threat was just part of the allegation against Abdi. Prosecutors said Abdi had illegally traveled out of the United States to search for holy war training and that he provided stolen credit card numbers to buy equipment like laptop computers for use in terrorism.
They also said Abdi made about 40 calls to terrorism suspects in 2003.
Abdi, currently housed at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Complex in central Louisiana, spent most of his time behind bars in the federal prison in Marion, Ill.
Beginning in March 2011, he enrolled in Ohio University's College Incarcerated Program, completed two general education courses for credit and was enrolled in one for credit in August, according to the university, which said federal privacy laws prohibit them from providing class titles.
Abdi is not granting interviews and declined to release any information about an attorney, said Vincent Picard, an ICE agent and spokesman in New Orleans.
Abdi's sister, formerly of Columbus and now living in Minneapolis, said her family is confident Abdi will be fine in Somalia.
"You know that we come from a culture that is very supportive of one another so Nuradin will not be in need financially as his whole family and those who loved him and cared about him will be there to get him start his new life," Kaltun Karani wrote in an email last month.
"My brother is strong, smart and very business minded," she added.