Al-Qaida Mastermind Rose Using American Hustle

FBI photos of Adnan Shukrijumah, believed to be the highest-ranking American in al-Qaida i i

Adnan Shukrijumah, shown here in undated photos from an FBI alert issued in March 2003, is believed to be the highest-ranking American in al-Qaida. He grew up in Florida and poses a new challenge to law enforcement: a terrorist who is not only familiar with the United States but deeply understands it. FBI/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption FBI/Getty Images
FBI photos of Adnan Shukrijumah, believed to be the highest-ranking American in al-Qaida

Adnan Shukrijumah, shown here in undated photos from an FBI alert issued in March 2003, is believed to be the highest-ranking American in al-Qaida. He grew up in Florida and poses a new challenge to law enforcement: a terrorist who is not only familiar with the United States but deeply understands it.

FBI/Getty Images

First of four parts

A video opens with an ordinary young man standing in front a blackboard in a Florida community college classroom. He's about to embark on a rite of passage that everyone remembers and most everyone hates: the five-minute oral presentation.

There are jumper cables on the table in front of him. He touches them nervously before he smiles, introduces himself, and dives right in.

"Hi, um, I'm Adnan," he looks down at his index cards for support, "and today we are going to learn how to jump-start a car."

It was 1997. The man in the video is Adnan Shukrijumah, thought to be the highest-ranking American in al-Qaida. Intelligence officials believe he is 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed's successor, and since he left Florida in the spring of 2001, has made it his life's work to attack America.

Shukrijumah is one of a growing number of Americans who are showing up in key positions in al-Qaida and its affiliate groups, presenting a new challenge for law enforcement. They are enemies who are not only familiar with America, but also deeply understand it.

As it turns out, that videotape — a shaky, badly lit film catching Shukrijumah on film 13 years ago — ended up as a crucial piece of evidence in a terrorism plot directed at the U.S. last year: a plan to bomb transportation targets around New York City.

The suspect in that case, a longtime American resident named Najibullah Zazi, had traveled to Afghanistan in hopes of fighting U.S. forces there. He was convinced by an American al-Qaida operative there to follow a different path: return to the U.S. and strike there instead.

Zazi told authorities that said he didn't know the operative's name; he could only provide a vague description of what he looked like and the fact that he spoke perfect English. An FBI agent showed him the videotape of the student explaining how to jump-start a car.

Zazi identified Shukrijumah as the al-Qaida operative who had directed him to attack the New York City subways. (Earlier this year, Zazi pleaded guilty to terrorism charges connected to the subway bombing plot.)

In the video, Shukrijumah hardly looks lethal. Instead, he is thin and small, a little over 5 feet tall, wearing a button-down shirt and blue jeans. His hair is short and his beard close-cropped.

A Pakistani man in Peshawar holds a matchbox with a photo of Shukrijumah i i

A Pakistani man in Peshawar holds a matchbox with picture of Shukrijumah in 2006. Shukrijumah is wanted in connection with several terrorist plots and has a $5 million bounty on his head. Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images
A Pakistani man in Peshawar holds a matchbox with a photo of Shukrijumah

A Pakistani man in Peshawar holds a matchbox with picture of Shukrijumah in 2006. Shukrijumah is wanted in connection with several terrorist plots and has a $5 million bounty on his head.

Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images

"First you keep your car running ... which is this with the happy battery," he says, pointing to a cube he's drawn on the blackboard to represent a fully charged car battery. It has a big smiley face on it. The dead battery is drawn with a frown.

Shukrijumah ends the presentation with a small bow.

In Florida, Blending In

Adnan Shukrijumah was born in 1975 and grew up in Trinidad and Saudi Arabia. His father was a religious scholar who was hired by the Saudi government to open mosques around the world. He opened one in Brooklyn. Later, he worked at one in Florida. Typically, he would travel to these cities and leave his wife and growing family behind.

It wasn't until the 1990s that Shukrijumah got his first taste of America. It began with occasional visits to Brooklyn and then, eventually, a move with the rest of the family — his mother and five brothers and sisters — to Florida when Adnan was a teenager.

The oral presentation in the video was for an English class at Broward College, a sprawling campus about 11 miles from Miami, where he took classes for several years.

David Armstrong, the president of Broward College, says Shukrijumah was a chemistry major at the school some 12 to 14 years ago and never graduated.

On a recent morning, Armstrong is standing outside the Broward student center. Most of the students are working on laptops, oblivious to the school president's presence. Armstrong says literally every country in the world is represented by Broward's student body, so Shukrijumah would have blended right in.

Shukrijumah registered under the name Jumah El-Chukri and enrolled in chemistry, computer science and English language classes. Armstrong says he was a pretty good student. And until a couple of months ago, few had put together that Jumah El-Chukri, the community college chemistry major, and Adnan Shukrijumah, the al-Qaida operative, were one and the same.

In fact, Shukrijumah's presence at Broward had become a bit of an urban myth. Rivka Spiro handles media for the college, and years ago, she heard about a student who might have been a terrorist.

"When I first got here, people were telling me about the college, and one of my colleagues said we have in our past a student who was alleged to be a terrorist," Spiro says. "She told me, 'Just so you know.' "

Urban myth met reality when a Broward professor stumbled on the Shukrijumah videotape and gave it to the FBI last year. The bureau didn't really have any specific use for it until last fall, when Shukrijumah was implicated in the subway bombing plot.

The 'Elvis Of Al-Qaida'

Joe Billy is the former assistant director of the counterterrorism division at FBI headquarters in Washington. He was one of the people responsible for tracking al-Qaida operatives like Shukrijumah. Billy thinks Shukrijumah is particularly dangerous because he chooses his operatives so carefully.

"Shukrijumah has always understood the importance of choosing operatives who know their targets," Billy says. "His philosophy has been, even years ago, to select and use operatives who come from the area they hope to launch attacks against," he adds. "And I think his strategies now are being employed more so than they have in years past."

And it isn't just Najibullah Zazi who is an example of this. That strategy is showing  up across the board, as homegrown terrorist attacks in the U.S. have spiked in the past year. Terrorist groups had been having so much trouble getting operatives into the United States that they have decided to find people here who can vault over that hurdle. Zazi was a permanent resident who could come into the U.S. without raising red flags.

Shukrijumah himself is an embodiment of that strategy: He is a naturalized American, and U.S. intelligence says his No. 1 goal is to find ways to attack the U.S. — the place that, for a time, was his adopted home.

Zurah Adbu Ahmed, mother of suspected al-Qaida operative Adnan Shukrijumah i i

Shukrijumah lived for years in Miramar, Fla., with his mother, Zurah Adbu Ahmed, shown here in August 2010. She says her son is too sickly -- he suffers from asthma -- to be a terrorist, and that she has not had contact with him in years. Wilfredo Lee/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Wilfredo Lee/AP
Zurah Adbu Ahmed, mother of suspected al-Qaida operative Adnan Shukrijumah

Shukrijumah lived for years in Miramar, Fla., with his mother, Zurah Adbu Ahmed, shown here in August 2010. She says her son is too sickly -- he suffers from asthma -- to be a terrorist, and that she has not had contact with him in years.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Law enforcement officials worry about Shukrijumah in particular because he has been able to travel anywhere and slip in and out of countries like a ghost melting through a wall.

Part of the reason is his physical appearance. His father is from Guyana and his mother is from Yemen. In short hair, he looks Hispanic. Put a beard on him, and he could pass for a Saudi or South Asian.

What's more, he speaks nearly perfect English. He has a U.S. Social Security card and Florida driver's license.

For years, FBI agents heard about an al-Qaida operative known only as the "South American" — it turned out to be Shukrijumah.

Today, among intelligence officials, he's known as the Elvis of al-Qaida. That's because, like Elvis, there have been unsubstantiated sightings of him all over the world. And, to continue the metaphor, it seems law enforcement always gets there after he has left the building. Even the FBI's Billy can't be entirely sure that Shukrijumah hasn't come back to the U.S.

"I don't believe he's been here," he says. "And if he has been here, then he has been successful at eluding and continuing to elude."

'Getting Into The American Dream Life'

Shukrijumah's mother is somewhat easier to find. Zurah Adbu Ahmed still lives in the same one-story house behind a gas station and highway that she shared with her son all those years ago in Miramar, Fla. She is a tiny woman, less than 5 feet tall, with a birdlike frailty and sweet brown eyes. She declined to go on tape because, in her words, everyone had already made their mind up about her son anyway.

There has been a lot of speculation about why Adnan Shukrijumah joined forces with al-Qaida. His father was, rather famously, the interpreter for Sheik Abdul Rahman — the blind sheik who was convicted of planning the 1993 World Trade Center attacks. Officials say that connection was just a coincidence.

Shukrijumah's mother says her son never spent time with his father in New York. She and her children had been left behind in Trinidad and Saudi Arabia.

She says her son isn't a terrorist. She says he is just too sickly — he has asthma. She says she hasn't heard from him in years.

About three miles from the Shukrijumah house in Florida, there's an Islamic Center called the Darul Uloom Institute. It is run by Sheik Shafayat Mohammed, a heavyset, jovial man from Trinidad. He hired Adnan Shukrijumah's father — who is now deceased — as a religious instructor years ago. And he says Adnan was allowed to lead prayers at the mosque.

"He was really a nice, well-mannered boy," Mohammed says. "I must admit that by 199 percent, he was really liked by everybody."

Adnan had a sense of humor, a certain charisma, and as the son of a mosque elder, people naturally looked up to him.

Mohammed says Adnan wasn't radical or even remotely anti-American. In fact, he was just the opposite.

"You could see that there was in him that desire to enjoy cars, to enjoy the American dream and the American life," says Mohammed. "So at one point in time, maybe a couple of years after he came, you could see him getting into the American dream life."

That's about the time, in 1996, that Shukrijumah signed up for classes at Broward. He started selling used cars and learning how to fix computers. He did whatever he could to hustle new jobs and make money.

Transformed By Afghanistan Trip

And then, one day, Adnan Shukrijumah just disappeared, Mohammed says.

Friends and relatives say he went to Afghanistan in the fall of 1998 or early 1999, about the time when the Taliban was consolidating its hold on the country.

Many young Muslims from around the world were going to Afghanistan at the time — partly out of religious duty and partly motivated by the adventure of it all. It is unclear what inspired Shukrijumah.

What is clear is that when he came back, Shukrijumah was different, Mohammed says.

"He got a little more stern, a little more firm, a little more hard in his practices and his beliefs," he says.

And they argued about religion, something they had never done before. Shukrijumah objected to some of the more progressive practices in the mosque.

Intelligence officials say Shukrijumah had been to an al-Qaida camp. Because of his asthma, he had been relegated to washing dishes and doing menial work. Then, in much the same way he hustled jobs in Florida, he worked his way up. He learned to handle AK-47s and automatic weapons. He studied topography and clandestine surveillance and explosives.

Because he had several passports, he could travel easily. Mohammed remembers after Shukrijumah returned to Florida he would disappear for weeks at a time. Officials say the trips were scouting missions for al-Qaida.

"Before 9-11 he disappeared totally," says Mohammed. "Last we saw him around here was May of 2001."

After that, officials say there were sightings of him everywhere: Trinidad, Saudi Arabia, Germany. But officials never seemed to get to any of these places in time to capture him.

Now, all Shukrijumah leaves in his wake are terrorism plots. Officials say he was behind the 2004 foiled plot against financial targets in New York and New Jersey. He was tangentially tied to the plot to try to ignite fuel lines at John F. Kennedy airport in 2007. And then he resurfaced in last year's subway plot.

He has been indicted in the Zazi case, and the U.S. government has placed a $5 million bounty on his head. Officials believe he has set his sights on one goal: to launch a successful attack against the country where he once lived.

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