A federal fugitive and former Broward Community College student who lived in this South Florida city with his mother and five siblings has become head of global operations for the Islamic terror network al Qaeda, according to the FBI — a worrisome development that may make U.S. targets more vulnerable.
The FBI told The Associated Press that it marks the first time a person so intimately familiar with American society has been put in charge of planning attacks, and that Adnan G. El Shukrijumah's new position puts him in regular contact with al Qaeda's senior leadership, including Osama bin Laden. El Shukrijumah is thought to be the only al Qaeda leader to have held permanent U.S. resident status, or a green card.
"It's not true," his mother, Zurah Adbu Ahmed, said Friday when told of the FBI's latest findings. She paused. "I don't know. But I don't think it's true. He's a kind, loving, caring boy."
She hasn't heard from her son, now 35, in many years, Adbu Ahmed said.
The FBI first accused El Shukrijumah of being an al Qaeda conspirator in 2003, saying in the late 1990s he became convinced that he must participate in "jihad," or holy war, to fight perceived persecution against Muslims in places like Chechnya and Bosnia. That reportedly led to training camps in Afghanistan where he underwent basic and advanced training in the use of automatic weapons, explosives, battle tactics, surveillance and camouflage.
The United States is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
His mother said his intense feelings about Islam and frustration with the excesses of American society including "drugs, alcohol, a love for sex, and clubs" have been misunderstood. She said El Shukrijumah, the first-born of her six children, opposes Americans "invading" Muslim countries, and disagrees with U.S. policies "in the Islamic world." But that "doesn't make him a terrorist," she said.
Now a grandmother of eight, Adbu Ahmed said she has tried to persuade FBI agents repeatedly that her son hasn't called her in years.
In an interview with the AP, Miami-based FBI counter terrorism agent Brian LeBlanc said El Shukrijumah has taken over a position once held by Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in 2003.
"He's making operational decisions, is the best way to put it," LeBlanc, the FBI's lead El Shukrijumah investigator, told the AP. "He's looking at attacking the U.S. and other Western countries. Basically through attrition, he has become his old boss."
According to the FBI, El Shukrijumah and two other al-Qaeda leaders were part of an "external operations council" that designed and approved terrorism plots and recruits, but the two counterparts were killed in U.S. drone attacks, leaving El Shukrijumah as the de facto chief and Khalid Sheik Mohammed's successor.
El Shukrijumah's mother, speaking in the neat living room of her house in a lower-middle-class Miramar neighborhood, said her family moved here in 1995 from Brooklyn. They came to the United States from Saudi Arabia, where her son was born. Her husband, a native of the South American nation of Guyana, brought the family to Broward County after becoming leader of a local mosque. When he died in 2004, he was known throughout South Florida, the Caribbean and New York as an Islamic scholar and teacher.
"We love America, we love Americans, we find a lot of good in them," Adbu Ahmed said. She said her son attended BCC and focused on computer science and chemistry courses. He got a job assembling telephone components at a Motorola factory, she said, but wanted something more and flew to the Caribbean island of Trinidad a week before Sept. 11, 2001, to look into business opportunities involving selling shoes wholesale.
"He called me two, three days after [the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center] and said, 'Did you see what happened in New York?' " Adbu Ahmed said. "I told him, 'Don't come back. They are putting what happened on Muslims.'"
El Shukrijumah phoned again about a week later and his mother again told him, "don't come," she said.
"He never called again. I don't know where he is," she said Friday.
She said the FBI doesn't believe her. Agents have been to her house half a dozen times since the terror attacks, some of the agents "nice, some of them rough."
They have searched the home, taken files, seized her computer, she said. They last showed up on her doorstep last year, she said.
Agents told her, " 'In Islamic culture, the son contacts the mother,'" she said. "I said, 'I'm waiting.'"
When the agents ask her where he is, she said, "I tell them 'You are the FBI, you tell me, you have the technology.'"
El Shukrijumah was named earlier this year in a federal indictment as a conspirator in the case against three men accused of plotting suicide bomb attacks on New York's subway system in 2009. The indictment marked the first criminal charges against El Shukrijumah, who previously had been sought only as a witness.
His mother said the indictment was surely a mistake. She said she taught all her children that "if you kill one person it's like you kill a whole nation," she said. "He knows that well. He will not kill people. He is gentle and kind."
On Friday, as news of the FBI's latest findings circulated, Adbu Ahmed was getting frustrated at the stream of journalists banging on her door. But she said that it was only because of the media that she knows of the allegations of her son's involvement with al Qaeda. "I only hear it from you, him and her," she said.
Teary-eyed, she said she worries the United States will target her son for assassination. And she wonders where he has gone.
"I have a question mark," she said. "Is he alive? Is he kidnapped?"
Terrorist experts want to know where the former South Florida resident is and what he's doing.
"What's dangerous about an individual that understands the U.S. is he may have a better sense of our security vulnerabilities and insights into how to terrify the American people using smaller attacks for large, political impact," Brian Fishman, a counter terrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, told the AP. "This increases the risk of attacks outside traditional places we normally worry about like New York and Washington."