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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

After college in North Carolina, Khalid, according to Kuwaiti authorities, never returned home. Instead, he joined his big brother in Peshawar. Another brother, Abed, a schoolteacher, left his job in the Gulf emirate of Qatar and came east too. A man who knew all three said Zahed, the eldest, was the coolest head of the trio; Abed was more militant and Khalid tended to follow him.

At the center of the Afghan resistance movement in Peshawar was Pushtun warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who had been a junior lecturer at Kabul University and was known as the Professor. He had been schooled in Cairo and spoke fluent Arabic. He became the favored recipient of money from the Saudi and American governments.

The money funded his army, a political party, a newspaper, a huge refugee camp and a college called the University of Dawa al Jihad, which means Convert and Struggle.

The university became known as a place you could learn darker trades than mathematics -- bomb-making, for example. A student once described it to U.S. journalist Mary Anne Weaver as an Islamic Sandhurst, likening it to the famous British military academy. For a time, the college also had as many as 1,000 students studying engineering, medical technology and literature.

The abandoned school sits behind high mud walls amid the sprawling Jalozai refugee camp, which today has more than 200,000 residents and is less an encampment than a city. Pakistanis marvel at the ingenuity of the Afghans, who have built a thriving local economy that includes the manufacture of pottery, textile and latticed wooden roofs that are exported back to Afghanistan where timber to make such things is scarce. There's even a carwash.

By 1989, Mohammed had gone to work at Sayyaf's university, a friend said. He taught there and worked weekends at the refugee camp. The three Baluchi brothers became part of the small, semi-permanent Arab community that included Azzam, Islamic Jihad founder Ayman Zawahiri and Bin Laden, who came and went with his wives and children in his own airplane. Most of the Arabs in town worshiped at a small mosque on a dead-end alley called Arbat Road, across the street from Zahed's office.

It was a different world then, said one man who was part of the scene. Everyone had the same goal: to oust the Soviets. Everyone knew one another, prayed and socialized together, and even went to the jihad training camps together.

Victory over the Soviets, who withdrew in 1989, should have been the crowning achievement of the jihad. But the various Afghan factions, deprived of a common enemy, began fighting one another. American support disappeared with the end of the Soviet campaign. Many felt that the U.S. actively opposed the establishment of an Islamic government in Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal. This was, to some, the cruelest cut of all.

Azzam, the heart of the Arab jihadi resistance, and two young sons were murdered by a bomb on the street outside the mosque in 1989. That same spring, Khalid's brother, Abed, also was killed by a bomb.

The political and religious climate changed in Peshawar, and resentment of the American abandonment festered. Bin Laden replaced Azzam as head of the Arab moujahedeen and began preaching hatred against the U.S.

Then came the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the American-led counterattack, which deepened divisions in the Arab world. Bin Laden, for one, was furious that the Saudi royal family allowed the U.S. to base its soldiers in the kingdom, violating what he felt was a Koranic dictate to keep infidels out of the holy land.

Most of the moujahedeen who had gathered in Pakistan went home, warriors without a war. Those who stayed changed perceptibly. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his circle changed with the times, one friend said.

"In 1991-92, their whereabouts, their meetings, their thoughts, it became more secret," he said. "The hatred for Americans -- it was among every Arab who came to Afghanistan."

Karachi: The Next War

Peshawar in the jihad years was said to have more spies, secret agents and freelance schemers per capita than any city in the world. Conversations dripped intrigue and purpose. Among the plotters was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's nephew, Ramzi Yousef.

Like Khalid, Yousef had left Fahaheel and Kuwait for college -- in his case, to study electrical engineering in Wales. He first visited Peshawar on a summer break in 1988 and then returned in 1991. He would become the first of the next-generation jihadis to carry the fight beyond Afghanistan.

It has never been clear who, if anyone, recruited Yousef, but at some point over the next year he began to make plans to attack. He asked a boyhood friend who was studying at flight schools in the U.S. to suggest potential targets. The friend suggested the World Trade Center, and by the fall of 1992 Yousef was in New York, assembling a team to bomb the twin towers.

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