One of the jihadi world's most famous bloggers could be brought up on U.S. terrorism charges soon, NPR has learned.
Inspire, an online propaganda magazine in English allegedly launched by al-Qaida. A federal grand jury has convened to consider evidence against Samir Khan, a North Carolina man who flew to Yemen last October, who is thought to be the magazine's editor.
This image provided by the SITE Intelligence Group shows
This image provided by the SITE Intelligence Group shows Inspire, an online propaganda magazine in English allegedly launched by al-Qaida. A federal grand jury has convened to consider evidence against Samir Khan, a North Carolina man who flew to Yemen last October, who is thought to be the magazine's editor.
A federal grand jury in Charlotte, N.C., convened to consider evidence against Samir Khan, a 24-year-old North Carolina man who is thought to be the editor of Inspire, a new al-Qaida online magazine.
The 67-page publication created a frisson through the U.S. intelligence community earlier this summer because of how very American it seemed to be. It was written in colloquial English. It had jazzy headlines and articles that made the publication sound like a kind of Cosmopolitan for jihadis.
"Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," read one headline.
Unsure what to pack when you leave for jihad? The magazine helpfully provided a list. Officials became convinced that it was Khan's work, and now they want to hold him accountable for it.
FBI Makes Inquiries
Late last summer, Khan began telling people at a local mosque that he intended to go to Yemen.
"He told me he had the prospect of going to Yemen to teach English at a university there while simultaneously learning Arabic," said Adam Azad, who attended the same mosque as Khan and met him when he first moved to North Carolina six years ago. "He was more of an acquaintance than a friend, and I didn't think anything of it when he said he was going there."
Muslims in Charlotte are careful when they talk about Khan. That's because over the past several weeks FBI agents have been showing up on doorsteps all over town asking questions. Six young men from the Charlotte area told NPR that agents interviewed them, and several of them received grand jury subpoenas. They say there are others in the cross hairs, too. It all appears to be part of the case the FBI is building against Khan. Among the questions asked: whether Khan ever mentioned going to Yemen so he could join a terrorist group and target Americans.
"They were asking for more information than would be reasonable for anyone to know about this guy," Azad said. "First of all, if Samir was going to go overseas to harm Americans overseas, he certainly wouldn't make those intentions public."
Charges Being Considered
Sources close to the case tell NPR the grand jury convened Tuesday to see if there was evidence enough to charge Khan with terrorism offenses. Among the charges people close to the case said the grand jury is considering: material support to a terrorist organization and conspiracy to commit murder overseas. The FBI, for its part, declined to confirm or deny whether there is an investigation. And the grand jury is unlikely to come out with any decision in the case for weeks. Grand jury deliberations are secret until indictments are announced.
Khan first came to the attention of U.S. law enforcement as a blogger. For years, he ran "Inshallah Shaheed" — or "a martyr soon, if it is God's will" — a pro-al-Qaida website, out of his parents' basement. It praised Osama bin Laden. It provided links to violent jihadi videos and footage of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. He helped his followers find violent productions of Islamic groups on the Web, all the while staying on the right side of this country's First Amendment protections.
Local Muslims Worried
The content of Khan's blog clearly rattled local Muslims.
"Samir was more infamous than famous in the Muslim community," Azad said. "People didn't really follow all the stuff he was putting up on the website, but I just remember people saying, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe he has that on his blog.' "
People in the Charlotte Muslim community who did not want to be quoted for fear of attracting the attention of the FBI said they were curious about the blog but had been told by mosque elders and their parents to stay away from it. They didn't want law enforcement officials tracking their computers if they looked at the site.
"Samir had very few friends around here, maybe one or two friends," says Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center in Charlotte. "So it wasn't as if he had a following here locally. The consensus here was that he was clearly going down the wrong path. And we tried to talk to him about that."
There were two meetings at Hough's Charlotte home with Khan, his father and a circle of elders in the Muslim community in late 2007 and 2008. They spent hours talking to Khan, trying to disabuse him of his beliefs that injustices against Muslims around the world needed to be corrected with violence. They talked to him about bin Laden. They tried to convince him that terrorism is wrong. According to two people at the meeting, and Hough, Khan was quiet and respectful. But it was hard to know whether the elders were getting through. Two more meetings were scheduled to track his progress. Only one more took place.
"We were actively involved trying to correct him, not encourage him," Hough said.
Putting Together A Timeline
But those community efforts had little effect. Intelligence sources say Khan was radicalized before he arrived in North Carolina. They believed it happened in New York, when he was in his early teens. FBI investigators are tracking down those leads to try to pull together a timeline and see who might have held such sway over the young man. What is certain is that Khan flew to Yemen last October and then disappeared. Then, months later, al-Qaida in Yemen released Inspire magazine.
U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) says she warned the FBI about Khan years ago. She thinks the bureau missed a key moment in Khan's radicalization — the moment he contacted al-Qaida in Yemen to offer himself up as a recruit.
"My concern has been that you just don't go over there and be accepted immediately," she told NPR. "It is like a closed group, a closed society. Al-Qaida doesn't just take you into their midst if they don't know who you are."
Intelligence officials now say they believe Khan's al-Qaida patron was Anwar al-Awlaki, the same U.S.-born radical cleric linked to the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. They say he invited Khan to Yemen and Khan packed his bags and went.