Broward County

Terrorist leader killed in Pakistan had Broward background

Adnan El Shukrijumah
Adnan El Shukrijumah AFP PHOTO / FBI

A former Broward County college student who slipped out of South Florida just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and later rose to the top ranks of al-Qaida was killed by Pakistani soldiers on Saturday.

Adnan El Shukrijumah was killed along with two other militants during a Pakistani army assault in a mountainous tribal area known as South Waziristan bordering Afghanistan, the military said in a statement.

Shukrijumah’s death marks the end of a hunt for an elusive figure who came under the scrutiny of the FBI after al-Qaida’s attacks on U.S. soil. He was initially suspected of associating with some of the 9/11 hijackers while attending his late father’s mosque in Miramar as well as Broward Community College.

Shukrijumah proved to be practically impossible to find and was located by Pakistan's premier spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence, by coincidence, rather than by design.

When Shukrijumah did not turn up on the ISI radar even after the June launch of a Pakistani military offensive in North Waziristan, it was assumed that he had fled the country, possibly to Iraq or Syria.

The ISI first received intelligence that Shukrijumah had been sighted in the South Waziristan area about two weeks ago, shortly after a resident tribe was issued an ultimatum to stop harboring foreign militants fleeing the military campaign in North Waziristan, the Pakistani media reported Sunday.

Shukrijumah had taken up residence at a small settlement of Afghan refugees near Wana, where he was attacked and killed by the Pakistani army early Saturday. Five of his colleagues were also captured in the raid.

The FBI believes Shukrijumah left his family's Miramar home in southwest Broward weeks before the 9/11 attack, ostensibly traveling to Trinidad on business to buy sunglasses and children's clothes for resale in South Florida flea markets.

Over the next decade, Shukrijumah would grow into a globe-trotting fugitive sought by the FBI as a leading operative for al-Qaida.

As al-Qaida's head of external operations, the 39-year-old Shukrijumah occupied a position once held by Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The FBI listed the Saudi-born Shukrijumah as a “most wanted” terrorist and the U.S. State Department had offered up to a $5 million reward for his capture.

Shukrijumah was also under indictment on charges of directing an alleged suicide-bomb plot in 2009 against the New York City subway system.

For all Shukrijumah's reported plotting and globe-trotting, his mother, Zuhrah, consistently maintained that her son was falsely accused of being a terrorist.

Asked in July 2011 at her Miramar home whether she had heard from him, she told the Miami Herald: “I don't know if he is alive.” Family members could not be reached on Monday. No one responded to a visit to to the home Monday by a Herald reporter.

At some point in the late 1990s, the FBI says Shukrijumah became convinced that he must participate in “jihad,” or holy war, to fight perceived persecution against Muslims in places like Chechnya and Bosnia. He eventually went to a training camp in Afghanistan where he studied the use of weapons, explosives and battle tactics.

U.S. officials warned that Shukrijumah was especially dangerous to the nation because of the time he spent in America. The mystery surrounding his whereabouts — and whether he played a direct role in 9/11 — remained among the key unanswered questions.

“They are us. They know us intimately,” said Michael Scheuer, a former top analyst in the CIA unit created after 9/11 to track down al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. forces killed May 2, 2011, in a raid on his Pakistan hideout.

Shukrijumah became a leading member and perhaps the head of al-Qaida's foreign operations subcommittee, a post that makes decisions on plans and recruitment, Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert and author of the book, Inside Al-Qaida: Global Network of Terror, told The Herald in 2011.

“He has moved up in the ranks because he's very clever and because he knows the main target, the United States,” Gunaratna said.

Shukrijumah was born on Aug. 4, 1975, in Saudi Arabia. As the son of two foreigners, he wasn't eligible for Saudi citizenship but obtained citizenship of Guyana, on the northern shoulder of South America, through his father. Three siblings also were born in Saudi Arabia.

Shukrijumah spoke better English than Arabic, apparently because of time he spent in Trinidad, said Sofian Abdelaziz Zakkout, a Miami social worker who met him briefly in 2000 as the head of the American Muslim Association of North America.

He was 20 when the family came to Miramar, and he registered at what was then Broward Community College. School officials said he enrolled under the name Jumah A. El-Chukri “from summer 1996 to summer 1998, majoring in chemistry, but not graduating.”

His mother, Zuhrah, said he initially was interested in chemistry but switched to computers because it was an easier subject.

“He didn't have enough knowledge,” she said. “He would study for one semester and start and stop.”

In between, she added, he traveled to buy flea market items, worked odd jobs in grocery stores and shops, sold used cars and phone cards, and assembled cell phones.

At one point, she said, her son returned to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims at least once in their lives if they can afford it.

Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed first identified Shukrijumah as an al-Qaida operative while under U.S. interrogation after Mohammed's capture in Pakistan in 2003, according to widely published reports.

Many contradictory reports have emerged about Shukrijumah.

He was sometimes described as a nuclear technician and commercial airplane pilot. Most of his aliases were variations of the word “Thayer,” Arabic for pilot. But there's no public evidence that he ever took lessons in flying or nuclear technology.

One U.S. military intelligence analyst assigned to a unit in Afghanistan that tracked “high value” al-Qaida targets in 2006-07 said that while Shukrijumah's name came up in some reports, he “was not on our top 10 list.”

Yet he was connected to so many alleged plots, and reportedly spotted in so many countries — Panama, Honduras, Mexico, Trinidad, Canada, Britain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — that he was called the Elvis Presley of al-Qaida.

While much was known about Shukrijumah, gaps remained. The most crucial: whether he was in contact with the 9/11 hijackers and pilots. Sixteen of the 19 hijackers lived in or visited South Florida before the attacks.

One U.S. immigration inspector told investigators she was “75 percent sure” she saw Shukrijumah with Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 pilots, and another man at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service building on 79th Street in Miami on May 2, 2001.

According to a 2004 report by the national panel that investigated the 9/11 attacks, Atta sought to extend the visa of one of his two companions, probably Ziad Jarrah, the pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

The 9/11 Commission report noted that “to date” no information had surfaced associating Shukrijumah with the plot, but it didn't rule it out, given that he “is considered a well connected al-Qaida operative.”

One of those connections, according to the report, was his father, an imam who testified on behalf of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for a plot to bomb the United Nations headquarters in New York, along with the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the George Washington Bridge.

Shukrijumah’s father, Gulshair, served as an imam, or prayer leader, at al Farouq mosque in Brooklyn, where Rahman once preached. He moved the family to Miramar in 1995, when he became imam of al Hijra Mosque, which then was around the corner from the family home.

In March 2001, FBI agents deployed an informant to infiltrate the mosque run by Shukrijumah's father because they were targeting another Broward Community College student who attended, Imran Mandhai.

The informant recorded Mandhai vowing to establish a jihad cell that would target electrical substations, Jewish institutions and a National Guard armory. Mandhai tried to recruit Shukrijumah, but he resisted and declined to join, according to the recordings.

Former U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman, who prosecuted the Mandhai case along with current Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger, said it was the country's first successful terrorism-related prosecution after 9/11.

Sloman said he thought it was more than sheer coincidence that Shukrijumah was in Broward at the time Mohamed Atta and other terrorists were in South Florida.

“It's pretty scary,” he said. “Not even Carl Hiaasen could make this stuff up.”

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this story from Broward County and McClatchy correspondent Tom Hussain contributed from Pakistan. The story was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.