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Agents Saw Mohammed's Stamp Behind Many Plots

March 02, 2003|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

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 reexamining past terrorist plots. The more they looked, the more they saw Mohammed.

They eventually concluded, to their dismay, that he had been involved in every significant Al Qaeda operation they were aware of, including a 1995 plot to blow up U.S. airliners over the Pacific, the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 attack on an American warship in Yemen.

"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 believe that the idea to use airliners as bombs was Mohammed's; they believe he recruited and supervised the hijack teams that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mohammed's capture Saturday closes one of the longest and most frustrating episodes in the history of counter-terrorism. Investigators tracked him 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 -- a ghost in the machine. He traveled the world as one of the chief designers of Al Qaeda. If Osama bin Laden was the network's visionary architect, Mohammed was its engineer, the builder of its plots.

Mohammed communicated with Al Qaeda cells around the world by courier, e-mail, coded telephone conversations and short-wave radio. German intelligence agents have said that when he was forced to retreat to rural hide-outs along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he sent messages out by donkey.

Even at the height of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001, Mohammed allegedly planned, staffed and directed more attacks. He is believed to have planned a post-Sept. 11 bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia. Several captured Al Qaeda operatives mentioned his interests in chemical and radioactive "dirty bombs."

He used Egyptian, Qatari, Saudi, British and Kuwaiti identities, investigators say. He posed as a rich Persian Gulf oil sheik, an electronics import-export man and a religious advisor. He speaks Arabic with a Kuwaiti accent and is fluent in Urdu, a principal language of Pakistan, and English, acquired in part as he studied for a mechanical engineering degree at a college in North Carolina.

Over the years, investigators came close to capturing Mohammed at least half a dozen times, missing him sometimes by weeks, other times by what they guessed was mere minutes. Last fall, Pakistani authorities captured one of his principal aides and his two young sons, but Mohammed got away.

Mohammed's persistence earned the grudging admiration of some investigators, who marveled at his ability to stay one step ahead.

In Pakistan, attempts to capture him involved a small army of agents from the military, police and multiple countries and intelligence agencies.

"The way he is managing their [Al Qaeda] affairs, the way he is controlling things, he is not an ordinary man," said one top Pakistani intelligence official.

Almost every Al Qaeda suspect the Pakistanis have arrested over the last year had some connection to Mohammed, authorities say. Many had no relationship to one another, but they all knew Mohammed.

Mohammed was born in 1965, according to records, and was reared in Kuwait. His parents were Pakistanis from Baluchistan, an area that straddles Pakistan's borders with Iran and Afghanistan. They were among the thousands of foreigners who were lured to the Persian Gulf by the oil boom but who were usually regarded as outsiders no matter how long they stayed.

Mohammed was the youngest of five children. His oldest brother, Zahed Shaikh, attended Kuwait University and was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab organization that functioned as an underground opposition throughout the region. A man who knew the family in Kuwait said Mohammed's initial politicization occurred through Zahed.

Mohammed attended high school in Kuwait, then left for tiny Chowan College, a Baptist school nestled among the cotton farms, tobacco patches and thick forests of eastern North Carolina.

Chowan did not require the standardized English proficiency exam then widely mandated for international students. Foreign enrollees often spent a semester or two at Chowan, improved their English and transferred to four-year universities. By 1984, Chowan had a sizable contingent of Middle Easterners.

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