Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Isolated U.S. College Days The professed Sept. 11 mastermind's North Carolina college years are recalled by a chemistry professor and a former classmate. The CIA claims those college years helped propel Mohammed on a path to terrorism. Though described as jovial, he also maintained a self-imposed isolation.
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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Isolated U.S. College Days

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Isolated U.S. College Days

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Isolated U.S. College Days

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When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed arrives in New York for trial, it will not be his first trip to America. The alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks will be transferred to the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison camp. Maybe, as he sits in a Manhattan prison cell he will remember his time living in the United States.

In the early 1980s he attended college in North Carolina. NPR's Dina Temple- Raston went to North Carolina to get a sense of the America he saw then.


DINA TEMPLE: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's first real taste of America was here at Chowan University. It's a small two-year Baptist college in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. Mohammed came here hoping it would act as a springboard to an American education.


TEMPLE: That's one of the school's choirs, practicing for their Christmas concert.

Back in the 1980s, all Chowan students - and that would have included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - were obliged to study Christianity extensively. That meant prayers, singing and biblical instruction, in addition to regular classes. It was an odd requirement for the son of an imam and a member of an Islamic group called The Muslim Brotherhood.

In the science building across campus, we met Dr. Garth Faile. He pulled an old grade book out of his desk drawer.

GARTH FAILE: Let's see; there he is right there. Mohammad, Khalid - it's spelled differently there.

TEMPLE: Dr. Faile was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's freshman chemistry teacher. He wore a tie with a periodic table on it. And he runs a finger down the first column of the grade book.

FAILE: See how many begin with an A as you go down the group there. There's Ahmad, Abu, Abu, Abdullah.

TEMPLE: There's a reason why so many Middle Eastern students showed up at Chowan back then. The dean of admissions sent school brochures to U.S. embassies all over the Middle East to recruit foreign students - and it worked.

FAILE: The class that he was in - since you said you were coming, I looked back at that old grade book - and of the 54 names, 29 were from the Middle East.

TEMPLE: One enticement was that Chowan didn't require prospective students to take an English proficiency exam. So, the foreign students tended to take math and chemistry classes while they tried to improve their English. The professor took us across the hall.

FAILE: This is the room that I taught in, right here.

TEMPLE: The room is stark and white. This is the exact same classroom where he's been teaching for almost 40 years. There are eight rows of six desks all bolted to the floor.

Do you remember where he sat?

FAILE: It's a long time ago, but it seemed like, to me, he was here, you know.

TEMPLE: The professor walks about halfway down the row closest to the door and puts his hand on the chair. Thinking back on it, Professor Faile said there was nothing that stood out about Mohammed, aside from the fact that he had one of the highest grades in the class.

FAILE: What he had in mind then, as opposed to now, I don't know. There was no reason for him to become a radical, you know, or want to kill people. We treated him and the Middle Eastern students just like anyone else.

TEMPLE: Which, of course, is one of the great mysteries about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. How could someone who seemed so ordinary become the man who allegedly planned the September 11th attacks?

After just a semester at Chowan, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed thought his English was good enough to move on. So, he transferred to North Carolina A and T State University in Greensboro. It's Reverend Jesse Jackson's alma mater, and where Mohammed began studying mechanical engineering.


TEMPLE: That's a vertical milling machine in the mechanical engineering lab at A and T. This is where engineering students get hands-on training. The lab looks like an inventor's messy garage.

The mechanical engineering lab was one of the few places that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed mixed with American students. When he wasn't in class, he spend his college years in a kind of self-imposed isolation in an off-campus apartment with other Middle Eastern students. He showed no interest in fitting in.

SAMMY ZITAWI: There was an apartment where they rented it as, like, for a mosque.

TEMPLE: That's Mohammed's lab partner, Sammy Zitawi. He grew up in Kuwait.

ZITAWI: They will just go there and do the prayer, and in between prayers, if you have any homework problem, they help each other studying and all this. Found their friends that they can blend with.

TEMPLE: Friends they could blend with - devout Muslims who avoided the kinds of things you come to expect in college.

ZITAWI: I mean, they wouldn't listen to music, they wouldn't play music. They won't even take a picture back then because they thought it's against religion. They won't take a picture for that point.

TEMPLE: That doesn't mean they lived an austere existence. Every Friday and Saturday night, Mohammed and the other Middle Eastern students used to get together for dinner. There would be prayers, homework, followed by little skits or a play. They called it The Friday Tonight Show.

Sammy Zitawi, who's now a small businessman in Greensboro, says his friend, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was one of the stars.

ZITAWI: This guy was funny, I mean, he would make you laugh, made fun out of anything.

TEMPLE: Zitawi said the disheveled, balding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - pictured right after his capture in Pakistan - looked nothing like what he remembered. The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed he knew was a small man, just five-foot- four and maybe 135 pounds.

ZITAWI: I mean, he had a cute face with a beard. He had a long beard back then. That's why I didn't know him when they were showing him with less hair and no beard, when they were talking Khalid Mohammed - I knew him as Khalid Sheikh.

TEMPLE: As much as he tried, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed couldn't wall himself off from America completely. In the summer of 1984, he was involved in a car accident. He'd been driving with an expired license and was taken to the Greensboro jail.


TEMPLE: The ceilings in the jail where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was held are low. The bars on the cells have been painted so often, they look thick. The inmates wear orange and red jumpsuits and leg irons.


TEMPLE: Zitawi said that sort of thing happened all the time.

ZITAWI: There are so many reasons for them to take you downtown. Anything, for any reason, they'll take you downtown.

TEMPLE: Zitawi said the Middle Eastern students at A and T back then had the tendency to see traffic laws as optional. In fact, he himself had spent some time in jail.

ZITAWI: I felt like an animal being there. It's like they lock you behind cages and I was scared. I mean, I was so scared. It's like, it was the worst experience in my life. Like, oh man, I'll never do it again, you know. It gave me a good lesson.

TEMPLE: Zitawi learned a lesson, but what did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed draw from his time in America? The conventional wisdom has long been that the best way to get people overseas to like the U.S. is to have them experience it for themselves. And yet a recently released CIA report claims, quote, "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's limited and negative experiences in the United States almost certainly helped propel him on his path to become a terrorist," unquote.

But it seems that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed never really experienced America. He kept himself apart and then found what he wanted to find. It seems like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed couldn't get out of America fast enough. He finished his engineering degree in two-and-a-half years. Then he went Afghanistan where he joined the mujahedeen.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.


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