LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This week, we're looking at Americans who've allegedly left this country who join the ranks of al-Qaida or its affiliate groups. Today, it's an American who's believed to be a terrorist mastermind. Adnan Shukrijumah may be the highest-ranking American in al-Qaida actually responsible for terrorist operations. He grew up in Trinidad. He's lived in Florida. He seems to have easily moved across U.S. borders.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston traveled to Florida to trace his story.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: It's lunchtime, and Broward College President David Armstrong tells me about the school's most infamous student.
Mr. DAVID ARMSTRONG (President, Broward College): Well, Shukrijumah was a student here approximately 12 to 14 years ago. He was majoring in chemistry, and he was a good student.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He registered under the name of Jumah El-Chukri, and until a couple of months ago, few had put together that Jumah El-Chukri, the chemistry major, and Adnan Shukrijumah, the al-Qaida operative, were one in the same.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: I've been three years. Did this come up before, Rivka? I actually don't know.
Ms. RIVKA SPIRO (Broward College): I thought it was actually an urban myth.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Rivka Spiro handles media for the college.
Ms. SPIRO: When I first got here, it was like, you know, people would tell me about the college. And one of my colleagues said, well, here's another thing you should know: We have, in our past, a student who is alleged to be a terrorist. Just so you know.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Urban myth met reality when a Broward professor stumbled on a videotape from an old class.
Mr. ADNAN SHUKRIJUMAH (al-Qaida Operative): There are some way - wrong things you can in jumping a cable, but I'm going to start by showing you the right way of jump-starting a car.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Shukrijumah in 1997, teaching classmates how to jump-start a car.
Mr. SHUKRIJUMAH: First thing, you keep your car running, which is this. With a hot battery, you keep your car running, and don't shut it off.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The video emerged as a crucial piece of evidence in a plot to bomb transportation targets around New York City. As it turns out, the suspect in the case, a long-time American resident named Najibullah Zazi, said he'd been sent to the U.S. to launch an attack by an American al-Qaida operative. Zazi didn't know the operative's name. The FBI showed the videotape of the student explaining how to jump-start a car. Zazi recognized Shukrijumah.
Mr. JOSEPH BILLY (Former Assistant Director, Terrorism Division, FBI): I'm Joseph Billy, Jr., former assistant director of the terrorism division, FBI headquarters, Washington, D.C.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Joe Billy was one of the people responsible for tracking Shukrijumah. And he says Shukrijumah understands the importance of choosing terrorists who know their targets.
Mr. BILLY: His philosophy has been, even years ago, to select and use operatives who come from the area that they hopefully intend to launch attacks against. And I think his strategies now are being employed more so than they have been in years past.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Shukrijumah himself is an embodiment of that strategy: a naturalized American looking to attack his adopted home. He was born in Saudi Arabia in 1975. His father is from Guyana, and his mother from Yemen. He speaks nearly perfect English. He has a U.S. social security card and a Florida driver's license. In short hair, he looks Hispanic. With a beard, he could pass for a Saudi or South Asian.
Today, among intelligence officials, he's known as the Elvis of al-Qaida. That's because, like Elvis, there have been sightings of him all over the world. And it seems law enforcement always gets there after he's left the building.
Joe Billy had to follow-up on those sightings, including rumors that Shukrijumah has been in the United States.
Mr. BILLY: I don't believe he's been here. So - and if he has been here, then he has been successful at eluding and continuing to elude.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Shukrijumah's mother is easier to find. She still lives in the same one-story house she shared with Adnan in Miramar, Florida. She's a tiny woman - less than five-feet tall - and she declined to go on tape. She said everyone has already made up their mind about her son, anyway.
He's the eldest of six kids. His father, who ran a mosque in Brooklyn in the 1990s, was the interpreter for the man known as the Blind Sheik, who was convicted of planning the 1993 World Trade Center attacks. Officials say that connection was just a coincidence. Mrs. Shukrijumah says her son is no terrorist. He's too sickly. He has asthma. She says she hasn't heard from him in years.
Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)
TEMPLE-RASTON: About three miles from the Shukrijumah home in Florida, there's an Islamic center. It's run by Sheikh Shafayat Mohammed. Children are at the mosque learning their prayers.
Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)
TEMPLE-RASTON: Mohammed is a heavy-set man from Trinidad. He hired Adnan Shukrijumah's father as a religious instructor, and Adnan was allowed to lead prayers.
Mr. SHAFAYAT MOHAMMED (Islamic Teacher): He was really a nice, well-mannered boy. I must admit that 199 percent. He was really liked by everybody.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Adnan had a sense of humor, a certain charisma. Mohammed said Adnan wasn't radical or even remotely anti-American. In fact, it was just the opposite.
Mr. MOHAMMED: You could see that there was in him that desire to enjoy cars, to enjoy the American dream and the American life. So, at one point in time, maybe a couple of years or whatever after he came, you could've seen him getting into the American dream life.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's about the time in 1996 that Shukrijumah signed up for classes at Broward and started selling used cars and learning how to fix computers. He did whatever he could to hustle new jobs and make money. And then one day...
Mr. MOHAMMED: Adnan did disappear.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Friends and relatives say he went to Afghanistan. That would have been in the fall of 1998 or early 1999. When he came back, Shafayat Mohammed says Adnan was different.
Mr. MOHAMMED: He got little more stern and little more firm and little more hard in his practices and his beliefs.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence officials say Shukrijumah had been to an al-Qaida camp, where, because of his asthma, he had to wash dishes and do menial work. Then, in much the same way he hustled jobs in Florida, he worked his way up. He learned to handle AK-47s. He studied topography and 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.
Mr. MOHAMMED: Before 9-11, he disappeared totally, and I think that was about May month. The last we saw him around here was around May of 2001.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Since then, officials say there were sightings of him everywhere: Trinidad, Saudi Arabia, Germany. Now all Shukrijumah leaves in his wake are terrorism plots. Officials say he was behind the 2004 plot to attack financial targets in New York and New Jersey, and then he resurfaced in last year's subway plot. He's been indicted, and there's a $5 million bounty on his head.
Officials believe he still has one goal: to launch a successful attack against a country where he once lived.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, al-Qaida's American editor.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.