News of alleged plot met with surprise

Terror suspect's Owings Mills teachers react to report

September 12, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman and Laura Barnhardt | Siobhan Gorman and Laura Barnhardt,sun reporters

When it comes to attacks, terrorism experts say, al-Qaida has historically sought something more spectacular than setting gas stations ablaze -- a plan ascribed to a former Baltimore County man who was locked up in a secret CIA prison.

Even an attack on a mall would probably kill more people and have more of an effect on the economy, said Robert Liscouski, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security. But, he added, blowing up gas stations could underscore "a vulnerability of everyday life," not unlike the Washington-area sniper attacks.

Majid Khan, a 1999 graduate of Owings Mills High School, was among 14 prisoners moved last week from CIA custody to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Having worked at his family's gas station, Khan was able to help with assessing the feasibility of a plan to attack gas stations at unspecified locations in the United States, according to an intelligence document.

The plan was to drive tanker trucks into gas stations to blow them up simultaneously, said a federal law enforcement official familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media.

"It's very easy to do. All you have to do is drive a truck across a pump," the official said. "You're not going to have a weapon of mass destruction, but you're certainly going to have a heck of a fire."

Khan, who moved with his family from Pakistan to Catonsville in 1996 but never obtained U.S. citizenship, also allegedly plotted to poisonwater supplies in the United States, according to a document posted on the Web site of the office of the director of national intelligence.

While Khan, 26, is described in government documents as "an al-Qaida operative" he was not a key planner for the terrorist network, according to the law enforcement official. The government believes that his main role for al-Qaida was offering reconnaissance and logistical support, according to both the official and unclassified intelligence documents.

Yesterday, teachers at Owings Mills High expressed surprise at the allegations surrounding Khan, and family members said he has been wrongly accused.

"He's not guilty," said Ahmed Khan, who identified himself as Majid Khan's brother. "This is all crap -- another lie from the Bush administration."

"He never thought of these kind of things," Khan said, standing in the driveway of his family's Windsor Mill duplex. "It's so crazy."

Khan said he and his brother traveled to Pakistan in 2003, both to get married. Majid Khan returned to the U.S. but went back to Pakistan that same year for three months when he was taken into custody, Ahmed Khan said. The family has been searching for Majid Khan since then, he said. "They kept saying he'd be released," Khan said.

Khan said his brother might not even know that he is the father of a daughter, now 2, who was born after he was taken into custody.

Before leaving the United States, Khan had worked for a company in Virginia, his brother said. "He was good in computers," he said, adding that he also played cricket.

At Owings Mills High, students said many were talking about the allegations. Members of the school faculty said they were surprised to learn of them.

"I was shocked because he never caused problems. He always seemed like a nice young man," said Margarita Ugarte-Caffyn, chairwoman of the English as a Second Language program at Owings Mills.

Ugarte-Caffyn had just started teaching at the school the year that Khan graduated, but she said she remembered him. "His English was very good," she said.

Another teacher, Janis Sanford, who no longer works at the school but who taught Khan social studies, said she has been struggling to reconcile the news about Khan with the quiet student she remembered.

Khan returned to Pakistan in 2002 and was introduced to the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, according to the Web site for the intelligence office. He had passed a test showing he was willing to commit suicide for his cause, according to the Web site.

In 2002, he delivered money to an al-Qaida operative for terrorist attacks against Western targets, the Web site said.

The allegations that Khan intended to attack gas stations surfaced last year in a terrorism trial in New York City.

Agents had arrested Uzair Paracha, a Pakistani national, in March 2003 on a material witness warrant, and court documents show he spoke with investigators at least seven times about his connections to al-Qaida. Paracha believed that Majid Khan was an al-Qaida operative and that "by helping Khan he was assisting" al-Qaida, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in New York in October.

Paracha also told agents that his father met with Osama bin Laden less than a year before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In other statements to authorities, Uzair Paracha recounted a meeting at an ice cream shop in Karachi, Pakistan, in which Khan gave explicit instructions.

"Khan then took Paracha via motorcycle to pick up passport photos," prosecutors wrote of Paracha's account. "Paracha felt that Khan was trying to recruit Paracha into al Qaida."

Back in the United States, according to court papers, Paracha posed as Khan, calling immigration officials, checking with a bank where Khan had an account and using Khan's credit card. The idea, prosecutors said, was to make it appear as though Khan had never left the country for Pakistan.

A federal jury in November convicted Paracha of providing material support to al-Qaida and aiding Khan in a plot to attack the United States. Statements from Khan presented by prosecutors at trial revealed that, once inside the United States, Khan intended to carry out an attack on gas stations.

Convicted on all five counts against him, Paracha was sentenced July 20 to 30 years in prison.

Sun reporters Matthew Dolan, Josh Mitchell and Nick Shields contributed to this article.

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