Suspect `was under everybody's radar'

He's suspected of role in every al-Qaida plot

March 02, 2003|By Terry McDermott | Terry McDermott,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When, after Sept. 11, evidence and interrogations made apparent to American investigators that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was a key planner of the attacks, they began re-examining past terror plots. The more they looked, the more they saw Mohammed.

They eventually concluded, to their dismay, that he had been involved in some way in every significant al-Qaida operation they were aware of, including a 1995 plan to blow up airliners over the Pacific, the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2001 bombing of a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Aden.

"He was under everybody's radar. We don't know how he did it. We wish we knew," a senior FBI official said recently. "He's the guy nobody ever heard of."

Investigators think the initial idea to use airliners as bombs was Mohammed's. They think he recruited and supervised the hijack teams that carried it out.

Yesterday's capture closes one of the longest-running and most frustrating episodes in the history of counter-terrorism. Investigators traced his trail over a decade through five continents and a dozen plots, and in the end still didn't know much more about him than a collection of three dozen aliases.

In the small, closed world of international counter-terrorism, Mohammed became a mythic figure, traveling the world as one of the chief designers of the al-Qaida network. Osama bin Laden was known as al-Qaida's visionary architect; Mohammed was its engineer, the builder of its plots.

Even at the height of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, Mohammed planned, staffed and directed still more attacks. He is thought to have been the planner of a post-Sept. 11 attack on a synagogue in Tunisia.

Over the years, investigators came close to capturing Mohammed at least half a dozen times, missing him sometimes by weeks, other times by what investigators guessed was mere minutes.

Mohammed was born in 1965, according to records, and reared in Kuwait. His parents were expatriate Pakistanis from Baluchistan, an area that straddles Pakistan's borders with Iran and Afghanistan. They were among the thousands of foreigners lured to the Persian Gulf by the oil boom.

Mohammed was the youngest of five children. His oldest brother, Zahed Shaikh, attended Kuwait University and was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant pan-Arab organization that functioned as an underground opposition throughout the region.

Mohammed attended high school in Kuwait, then left for Chowan College, a Baptist school nestled among the cotton farms, tobacco patches and thick forests of eastern North Carolina. Mohammed spent a semester at Chowan, then transferred to North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.

He earned a degree in mechanical engineering and is thought to have left the United States for Pakistan, where he joined his brother Zahed, who by then was running a Kuwaiti charity that gave aid to Afghan refugees in Peshawar.

Mohammed's first known involvement in terrorism occurred in 1992, when he sent money to his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, as Yousef was in New Jersey making plans for the first bombing of the New York World Trade Center in 1993.

Mohammed and Yousef later teamed up on plots in the Philippines that included planned assassinations of the pope and President Bill Clinton, and placing bombs aboard a dozen American airliners.

The Manila plots were foiled by authorities in 1995. Mohammed escaped and moved to the Persian Gulf, according to U.S. investigators.

Investigators say Mohammed spent the next year building and maintaining a terror fund-raising network in the Persian Gulf.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh met with Qatar officials seeking permission to arrest him. Some officials felt strongly that the United States should act as quickly to capture him. Others were more wary. A meeting was called in Washington in early 1996. Caution prevailed.

In the end, rather than sending a squad to capture Mohammed, Freeh sent a letter to the Qatar government. By the time permission was granted, Mohammed was gone. He is thought to have fled to Afghanistan, where he joined al-Qaida and eventually rose to its highest ranks.

Terry McDermott is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune publishing newspaper.

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