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An Immigrant's Journey From Md. to Gitmo

By Katherine Shrader
The Associated Press
March 22, 2007



BALTIMORE -- Majid Khan worked the cash register at his dad's gas stations, listened to rap music and went to public high school like many other immigrants. Yet, at a red brick mosque wedged between a busy highway and middle-class cul-de-sacs, the U.S. government says, he found his way to an extreme brand of Islam.

Two trips to Pakistan to marry and visit his new wife allegedly led him to a fellow English-speaker, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Together, the government says they plotted to blow up American gas stations, poison U.S. reservoirs and kill the president of Pakistan.

The 26-year-old Khan is now jailed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the only U.S. resident among 14 detainees the government considers its most dangerous.

U.S. officials see his journey from suburbia to prison as a worrisome example of the radicalization of young Muslim men, but also as a victory in the war on terror. His family sees it as a horrible mistake. To them, he remains a fun-loving son and sibling, gifted with computers and a one-time volunteer at the local mosque.

In September, President Bush confirmed that the CIA had been holding Khan at secret detention facilities as he was transferred to Guantanamo along with others to await prosecution under the new military tribunal system. According to a recently released transcript from a hearing at the prison, Khan's mentor, Mohammed, confessed to 31 plots, including at least one involving Khan.

"Majid is the youngest brother of mine. He is the most fun person that we had here," said Mahmood Khan during an hour-long interview at the family's dining room table. "Allegations like that are the total opposite side of the Majid we know."

Many details of how Khan ended up on a list of elite terror suspects, including how the government says he found extremism in Baltimore, have not previously come to light.

Top national security officials say they're finding and charging more young men--from California to Ohio--with crimes such as providing aid to al-Qaida. Yet "it's hard to know whether we are seeing more because there is a real uptick in domestic radicalization, or because we focus more law enforcement and intelligence energy on it," said Kenneth Wainstein, who heads the Justice Department's national security division.

Philip Mudd, deputy chief of the FBI's National Security Branch, said the government has learned more about how radicalization works. A significant step occurs when a potential recruit who is talking about jihad takes even a small action like training during a camping trip, he said.

"It is an action that cements you down a certain path," Mudd said.

The path for Majid Khan was described in government documents and by half a dozen U.S. federal officials. None would be quoted by name because Khan hasn't yet been formally charged.

They said that in 1996, Khan joined other members of his family who immigrated from Pakistan and settled in a modest 1970s Baltimore subdivision with wide sidewalk-lined streets and cookie-cutter homes of brick and aluminum siding. Khan was granted asylum status but never obtained citizenship.

For prayers, the local mosque was about a mile away. For school, Majid took a bus past closer schools to attend Owings Mills High's program for non-English speakers, graduating in 1999.

In the government's account, along with exposure to American culture, Khan also found a radical version of Islam. A change came sometime before Sept. 11, 2001, when Khan was working at a Maryland government office and a technology company as a database administrator.

He also volunteered at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, teaching computer classes through a youth enrichment program. Court papers filed by Khan's attorneys say the society _ a pillar in Baltimore's Muslim community, with some 3,000 families _ is the only Islamic organization in which Khan participated in the United States.

Khan caught the attention of a radicalized fringe element that took advantage of the society as a forum where they could organize a small prayer group. One official stressed that radical presence in Baltimore's I-95 corridor was small _ maybe one or two key individuals, less than a handful overall. But it was enough to provide entree to al-Qaida.

While not speaking directly about Khan's case, government officials said that U.S.-based Muslim organizations like Baltimore's Islamic society can be infiltrated by a radicalized element looking for disaffected young people. The larger organization provides the radicals cover, usually unknowingly.

Abid Husain, an Islamic society board member and head of youth affairs, recalls little of Khan. He remembers his face and the programming classes that he said Khan led for just a couple of months. "It never crossed our mind that he would end up like this," Husain said.

He said the society is moderate but, true to Muslim tradition, it doesn't control who enters its doors to pray. And he said he was unaware of any radical presence _ at his mosque or elsewhere in Baltimore. "Hopefully, they are not around here anymore," he said.

By 2002, Khan and one of his older brothers went to Pakistan when Khan's family arranged for him to wed; tradition was to marry into the same clan as a way of maintaining its tight bonds.

The trip also connected Khan to his cousin and uncle who were both members of al-Qaida. They introduced Khan to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida's most prolific plotter whom intelligence officials refer to as KSM. He claimed responsibility this month for Sept. 11 and 30 other attacks.

Like Khan, KSM was a Pakistani and spoke English. He had attended school in the United States at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.

In Pakistan, the government says, KSM asked Khan for help and Khan obliged. In the fall of 2002, KSM asked him to deliver $50,000 to an al-Qaida affiliate in Thailand for terror attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets in South Asia. In a press conference last year, Bush said that Khan confirmed during interrogation the money was delivered to an operative named Zubair, and Khan provided a physical description and contact number for him. Zubair was captured in 2003.

Khan also is said to have helped pick possible operatives, including Iyman Faris, an Ohio truck driver who is now serving 20 years in prison for supporting terrorism. Faris was studying how to destroy New York City suspension bridges.

Khan also had his own role in planning attacks, officials say, and he passed KSM's tests, including one to prove he would be a committed suicide bomber.

U.S. intelligence believes Khan got training in timed detonators with a goal of blowing up gas stations. He also researched how to poison water reservoirs. And KSM considered Khan for an operation to kill Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The government contends Khan knew he was violating the terms of his asylum by leaving the United States for Pakistan later in 2002. Early the next year, he asked New York resident Uzair Paracha to impersonate him by using his U.S. credit card and bank accounts to make it appear he hadn't left.

Khan offered Paracha and his father $200,000 in exchange for the younger Paracha's help, the government alleged. While searching Paracha's home, the FBI found Khan's license, Social Security card, ATM card and a key to his post office box in Gaithersburg, Md.

Last year, Paracha was sentenced to 30 years in prison for providing material support to terrorism.

In their most extensive comments to date, Khan's family and his attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights tell a much different story.

Mahmood Khan, his oldest brother, says Majid was like many high school kids: He got good grades. He borrowed his older siblings' cars to hang out with friends. He wanted to be a rapper. And he used his cricket skills to excel at baseball.

After high school, Mahmood said his brother was certified in Oracle databases. Mahmood said that landed him the best job in the family, earning $70,000 a year for Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s offices in Virginia.

Unlike the rest of his family, Mahmood said, that steady 40-hour-a-week job also meant that Majid could devote significant time to the mosque, a couple of hours a day. He recalls his brother's computer classes and how he would help direct traffic for Friday prayers.

Mahmood said several family members went to Pakistan for Majid's February 2002 wedding to Rabia Yaqoob. He said his brother returned to the United States shortly afterward to make some money, but rejoined his wife later that year. Her wealthy family owned land where he could hunt, fish and swim while he waited for his U.S. citizenship to come through.

Within days of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's March 2003 capture, Pakistani security agents raided a flat where Majid was staying in Karachi's Guilstan-e-Jauhar neighborhood _ a concrete jungle of apartment blocks and small houses. Majid, his brother Mohammed, his brother's wife and their infant daughter were taken into custody.

In recent telephone interviews from southern Pakistan, Rabia said she was at her parents' house that night, but she's been told of the midnight intrusion _ the soldiers in uniform and other men in plain clothes. Everyone but her husband was released after about a month.

From time to time, Mohammed would get a phone call from an unidentified person, saying his brother was alive and would return soon.

With the rest of the family, Rabia searched for information about her husband's whereabouts. The week that Bush announced Khan was in U.S. custody, she joined loved ones of four missing Pakistani men in several days of protests in Islamabad, asking the government to help return their family members.

Rabia got personal confirmation of his detention when the Red Cross delivered a series of letters, censored by the U.S. "We will meet in the heaven if we could not meet in this world," he wrote in one received in early January.

Rabia said her husband is innocent and she knows nothing about any links with al-Qaida. Rabia's 3-year-old daughter has never met her father. "I hate Americans," she said. "My family hates Americans _ mainly because of Majid Khan's arrest."

Mahmood disavows that sentiment, but voices another painful regret _ the Islamic society's decision to distance itself from his brother. "The community at that time welcomed all his moves," he said. "But when Majid needed their help, no one came forward."

It's still not clear where Khan was held for three years, but there are clues. One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that there was an inscription under his prison sink: "Majid Khan, 15 December 2004, American-Pakistani." That detainee, Marwan Jabour, believes he was held at a U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan.

Wherever he was, Mahmood and Majid's attorneys say he was subjected to torture and coerced into making false statements. The CIA denies it uses torture.

Mahmood said his family is anxious to hear his side of the story. "Can we get access to Majid to find out the truth?" he asked.

What's ahead for Khan is unclear.

Pakistan has never publicly acknowledged a role in his detention. Akram Shaheedi, spokesman at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, said Khan was most likely arrested in Afghanistan by U.S. or Afghan authorities there.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials said Khan was caught by the Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence after it received a tip from its U.S. counterparts that Khan was linked to KSM. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

This month, the U.S. military has been reviewing the status of KSM, Khan and 12 other high-value detainees held at Guantanamo. Prosecutors hope to begin trials under Congress' newly approved military tribunal system as soon as this summer.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hemingway, the legal adviser to the Pentagon's office on commissions, said charges against the 14 former CIA detainees will be especially complicated. For just one of the 14, he said, the government has amassed 40,000 documents _ an example of what the others could be like.

Khan's attorneys have petitioned _ unsuccessfully so far _ to have his case tried in civilian court in the United States. A federal appeals court ruled last month that Guantanamo Bay detainees cannot use the U.S. court system to challenge their indefinite imprisonment. That question is likely to end up before the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Mahmood said his family has cooperated with U.S. authorities in every way it could, including one brother who was interviewed extensively by the FBI.

The Khans are trying to maintain a normal American existence. Last year, Majid's dad, Ali Shoukat Khan, retired and for a time turned his gas station over to Mahmood. It was registered in Maryland under the name Insha Auto Works _ using the Arabic word for "willing" _ although it also used the name Ingleside Service Station.

Mahmood renamed it "All American Motors."

Associated Press Writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Zarar Khan in Karachi, and news researcher Judy Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.

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