Terrorists of al-Qaida grew bitter while in West

Uprooted by Afghan war, many lived in U.S., Europe

March 06, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

One unnerving detail in the biography of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whose alleged career killing Americans was cut off Saturday by his arrest in Pakistan, shows that he is very familiar with the U.S. society he evidently hates: He went to college in North Carolina.

"He was very quiet, but friendly when we talked," recalls Sammy I. Zitawi, a classmate at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University in Greensboro, where Mohammed earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1986. "He was religious. He always wore a beard. ... He was one of the ones we called `the mullahs' as a sort of joke, a nickname."

When Zitawi heard last fall that his old acquaintance was the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and other terrorist plots, his reaction was "total shock," he says. "To this day it doesn't make any sense."

Mohammed's years in America are part of a striking pattern among the terrorists of al-Qaida: Many have lived in the Western societies they now despise.

"They come from relatively affluent backgrounds," says John Calvert, a historian at Creighton University in Omaha who studies Islamist ideology. "They're well-educated. They're fluent in a Western language. But there's something about Western politics, Western culture, that makes them uneasy."

Calvert is translating the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian theorist of Islamism - the fundamentalist philosophy that holds that a literal Islam should govern all aspects of life. Qutb's anti-Western tracts strongly influenced al-Qaida's leaders.

Like Khalid Mohammed, Qutb lived in the United States, as an exchange scholar from 1948 to 1950 at Northern Colorado University and in Washington and New York, an experience that seems to have fed his anti-Americanism. His writings describe anguished encounters with American materialism (symbolized, he felt, by the obsession with lawn care), racism and sexuality, which he found disturbing even at a church dance.

"We're naive Americans, and we tend to think people who come here will love us," says Gideon Rose, managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs. "But for conservative Muslims, the reaction to the West can be deeply challenging and destabilizing."

Rose has written on another terror network, the European anarchists who between 1894 and 1901 assassinated the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy and the president of the United States, William McKinley. Those terrorists, too, were well-traveled and well-educated, he says.

"Almost never is terrorism the spontaneous reaction of the dispossessed and downtrodden," Rose says.

None of the important figures in al-Qaida remained in their home countries, where they might have put down roots and focused political anger on local targets. Instead, they became part of a rootless, international band, moving from city to city in Europe, Asia and the Americas, linked by ideology and a common enemy: the United States.

One reason for their stateless, global orientation is that most traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to join the mujahedeen, the Muslim guerrillas who battled Soviet invaders in a holy war financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia.

Many experts believe the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan was the most important formative experience for the future plotters of al-Qaida - Arabic for "The Base," a name that had its origin in the computer database Osama bin Laden created to keep track of the men coming to fight in Afghanistan.

Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East historian at the University of Chicago, notes that of thousands upon thousands of Muslim students who have studied in America and Europe, only a handful have become terrorists. He believes their defining experience was not a Western education but the Afghan jihad.

"A bunch of rag-tag believers destroy a superpower - that's the way they see it," Khalidi says. "It's empowering. And they discover the tools of the terrorist trade."

Over the past decade, with the Soviet Union dissolved, the veterans of jihad redirected their terrorist tactics at the sole remaining superpower. By then they were world citizens: Their most telling blow, the Sept. 11 attacks, was plotted not in the Middle East but in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Hamburg, Germany.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, about 38 years old, is believed by U.S. investigators to have conceived the idea of crashing fuel-laden airliners into the Pentagon and World Trade Center. He has been linked to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, planned by his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, as well as to failed plots to bomb a dozen jetliners over the Pacific and crash a plane into CIA headquarters.

Born to Pakistani parents in Kuwait, he arrived in North Carolina in 1984 and spent a semester at Chowan College in Murfreesboro, then a two-year institution favored by foreign students because it did not require English fluency. He then transferred to historically black A&T, where he was one of about 150 foreign Muslim students.

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