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The Plots and Designs of Al Qaeda's Engineer

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the man believed to be behind 9/11, hides in plain sight -- and narrowly escapes capture in Pakistan.

December 22, 2002|Terry McDermott, Josh Meyer and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

The Pakistani government also seeks to disown Mohammed, even though his first known passport was issued by Pakistan.

"Why do the Kuwaitis want to shift the blame to us?" said Muhammad Khalid, head of chancery at the Pakistani Embassy in Kuwait City.

Although much remains murky about Mohammed's background, it seems clear that his parents came from Baluchistan, which encompasses great swaths of southwestern Pakistan, southern Iran and Afghanistan. As avid coastal traders, the Baluchis have an extended history throughout the Gulf. Generations ago, area sheiks brought in fearsome Baluchi tribesmen to serve as palace guards.

Mohammed's parents had religious callings, according to local press reports. His father, Shaikh Mohammed Ali Doustin Baluchi, who died decades ago, according to Mohammed's acquaintances, has been described as a former imam, or preacher, at a mosque in the sprawling Ahmadi municipality. Mohammed's mother, Halema, was said to have worked cleaning women's bodies for burial. This is considered a prestigious job in Islam, however ill-paid.

Mohammed is one of at least five siblings -- four boys and a girl. The brothers' names -- Khalid (meaning man of eternal life); Zahed (pious); Abed (worshiper) and Aref (knowledgeable) -- reflect the family's religious orientation.

What little is known about the sister includes one compelling piece of information: She is thought to be the mother of Abdul Karim Basit, better known as Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the man convicted of masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

Chowan College: Abbie Dahbies

Mohammed's first extended encounter with the West occurred at Chowan College, a tiny Baptist school nestled among the cotton farms, tobacco patches and thick forests of eastern North Carolina, just south of the Virginia line.

The school was founded in 1848 as a refuge of learning for proper Southern women. Later, it became a two-year junior college, a place where young adults could gain an academic foothold. Its entry standards were liberal, but its values were bedrock and its leafy setting in isolated Murfreesboro, with no bars and a single pizza shop, pretty much ensured that everyone remained on the straight and narrow. Generations of small-town ministers, teachers and other community mainstays passed through Chowan's colonnaded facade.

After World War II, the school's missionary alumni began referring students from overseas. Dominating the international contingent by the 1980s were Middle Eastern men.

Chowan did not require the standardized English proficiency exam then widely mandated for international students, a fact that spread through the global academic network. Foreign enrollees often spent a semester or two at Chowan, improved their English and then transferred to four-year universities.

Mohammed applied to Chowan as a Pakistani citizen shortly after graduating from Fahaheel Secondary in 1983, according to college records. He told school administrators that he had heard of the college from a friend in Kuwait. His bill -- $2,245 for the spring semester -- was paid in full the day of matriculation, Jan. 10, 1984. He told fellow students that his father was dead and that his brothers picked up the tab.

"He took his studies seriously and was a very good Muslim," said Badawi Hindieh, a Palestinian from Fahaheel who attended Chowan at the same time.

Acquaintances knew him as Khalid Shaikh, a name that stuck in people's minds. Mohammed, acquaintances said, was culturally integrated into Arab and Kuwaiti society and could have passed as a Kuwaiti Arab.

"Khalid Shaikh spoke very good Arabic, like a Kuwaiti, but introduced himself as a Pakistani," Hindieh said. "We knew he was Baluchi."

Later in life, as Mohammed used multiple identities and moved from the Gulf to Afghanistan, the West and beyond, this ability to immerse in varying cultures would serve him well.

By 1984, about 50 of the 650 or so male students at Chowan were Middle Easterners, including a sizable contingent from Fahaheel and elsewhere in Kuwait. The local boys had a name for them: "Abbie Dahbies."

The Arab students were frequent recipients of anti-Iranian epithets in the years after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The foreigners were sometimes viewed as cliquish.

"They seemed to be praying all the time," recalled John Franklin Timberlake, a 1984 Chowan graduate, now a police officer in Murfreesboro. "Just chanting, like. We never understood a word of it. Sometimes we'd come home late on a weekend night, maybe after we'd had a few beers, and they'd still be praying."

At Chowan, Mohammed embarked on a pre-engineering curriculum -- popular among the foreigners.

"He was a good student -- a bit better than a B-type student," Garth D. Faile, chairman of the science department, said in an interview this fall.

Mohammed, like every student, was required to attend a once-a-week chapel service based on Christian doctrine.

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