10 years after 9/11, suspected al Qaida figure still eludes FBI

MIAMI — Adnan el Shukrijumah left his family's Miramar, Fla., home in 2001 and traveled to Trinidad on business, presumably to buy sunglasses and children's clothes for resale in south Florida flea markets.

Ten years later, Shukrijumah is an elusive, globe-trotting fugitive — sometimes called "the Elvis of al Qaida" — wanted by the FBI as one of the terrorist group's alleged leading operatives and the subject of lingering questions about his possible association with 9/11 hijackers before the attacks.

He's also under indictment on charges of directing an alleged suicide-bomb plot in 2009 against the New York subway system. The reward for his capture: $5 million.

"We are still looking for him," said FBI special agent Michael Leverock, who's based in south Florida.

U.S. officials warned that Shukrijumah, 36, is especially dangerous to the nation because of the time he spent in America. The mystery surrounding his whereabouts — and whether he played a direct role in 9/11 — remains among the key unanswered questions a decade after the attacks.

"They are us. They know us intimately," said Michael Scheuer, a former top analyst in the CIA unit created after 9/11 to track down al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. forces killed May 2 in a raid on his Pakistan hideout.

Shukrijumah is now a leading member and perhaps the head of al Qaida's foreign operations subcommittee, a post that makes decisions on plans and recruitments, said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert and author of the book "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror."

"He has moved up in the ranks because he's very clever and because he knows the main target, the United States," Gunaratna said.

Shukrijumah was born on Aug. 4, 1975, in Saudi Arabia. As the son of two foreigners, he wasn't eligible for Saudi citizenship but obtained citizenship of Guyana, on the northern shoulder of South America, through his father. Three siblings also were born in Saudi Arabia.

Shukrijumah spoke better English than Arabic, apparently because of time he spent in Trinidad, said Sofian Abdelaziz Zakkout, a Miami social worker who met him briefly in 2000 as the head of the American Muslim Association of North America.

He was 20 when the family came to Miramar, and he registered at what was then Broward Community College. School officials said he enrolled under the name Jumah A. El-Chukri "from summer 1996 to summer 1998, majoring in chemistry, but not graduating."

His mother, Zuhrah, said he initially was interested in chemistry but switched to computers because it was an easier subject.

"He didn't have enough knowledge," she said. "He would study for one semester and start and stop."

In between, she added, he traveled to buy flea market items, worked odd jobs in grocery stores and shops, sold used cars and phone cards, and assembled cellphones.

At one point, she said, her son returned to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims at least once in their lives if they can afford it.

Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed first identified Shukrijumah as an al Qaida operative while under U.S. interrogation after Mohammed's capture in Pakistan in 2003, according to widely published reports.

Many contradictory reports have emerged about Shukrijumah.

He's sometimes described as a nuclear technician and commercial airplane pilot. Most of his aliases are variations of the word "Thayer," Arabic for pilot. But there's no public evidence that he ever took lessons in flying or nuclear technology.

One U.S. military intelligence analyst assigned to a unit in Afghanistan that tracked "high value" al Qaida targets in 2006-07 said that while Shukrijumah's name came up in some reports, he "was not on our top 10 list."

Yet he's been connected to so many alleged plots, and reportedly spotted in so many countries — Panama, Honduras, Mexico, Trinidad, Canada, Britain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — that he's been likened to Elvis Presley.

For all Shukrijumah's reported plotting and globe-trotting, however, his mother maintains that her son has been falsely accused of being a terrorist. Asked in July at her Miramar home whether she's heard from him, she replied: "I don't know if he is alive."

While much is known about Shukrijumah, gaps remain. The most crucial: whether he was in contact with the 9/11 hijackers and pilots, some of whom lived in Broward County before the attacks.

One U.S. immigration inspector told investigators she was "75 percent sure'' she saw Shukrijumah with Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 pilots, and another man at the old Immigration and Naturalization Service building on 79th Street in Miami on May 2, 2001.

According to a 2004 report by the national panel that investigated the 9/11 attacks, Atta sought to extend the visa of one of his two companions, probably Ziad Jarrah, the pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

Shukrijumah's father, Gulshair Shukrijumah, told journalists before his death in 2004 that he last saw his son in May 2001. The FBI says Shukrijumah left the country in the weeks before 9/11.

Their versions make it possible that Shukrijumah accompanied Atta to the INS office, though his mother said her son left for Trinidad in January 2001 and never returned.

The 9/11 Commission report noted that "to date" no information had surfaced associating Shukrijumah with the plot, but it didn't rule it out, given that he "is considered a well connected al Qaida operative."

One of those connections, according to the report, was his father, an imam who testified on behalf of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian who's serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for a plot to bomb the United Nations headquarters in New York, along with the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the George Washington Bridge.

U.S. authorities discovered that plot as a result of investigations into the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993. A key plotter in that attack was Ramzi Yousef, a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Gulshair Shukrijumah served as an imam, or prayer leader, at al Farouq mosque in Brooklyn, where Rahman once preached. He moved the family to Miramar in 1995, when he became imam of al Hijra Mosque, which then was next door to the house where his widow and daughters still live.

Gulshair was born in Guyana to East Asian parents. After studying Islam in Saudi Arabia he became a professor at the Islamic University of al Madinah al Munawara in Medina, Islam's second holiest city. Zuhrah, who was born in Yemen, said she was 7 when her father moved her family to Medina and 16 when she met her husband there.

The Shukrijumahs left Saudi Arabia in the 1980s for Trinidad, where Gulshair served as imam for about five years, and later moved to Brooklyn, Zuhrah told a reporter in 2004.

A month or two after 9/11, Shukrijumah's mother said, he phoned from Trinidad.

"He was asking about what happened after September 11," she said. "I told him I don't have a good feeling about you being here. Go elsewhere. I felt all the focus was on the Arabs and Muslims.

"You feel, who knows, maybe they will put it on you, too."

Shukrijumah's father said the last time he heard from his son was in October 2002, while he "was in Morocco teaching English."

By 2003, after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's capture, Shukrijumah's name was being linked to plots and cameo appearances around the world.

He was reported to have cased the New York Stock Exchange in 2000 as a target for possible post-9/11 attacks. A businessman in Guyana claimed to have seen him in that country in 2003, picking up money at an exchange house.

Shukrijumah's father confirmed that same year that his son had known Imran Mandhai, a Broward Community College student who frequented the Miramar mosque where the father had served as imam.

In March 2001, FBI agents deployed an informant to infiltrate the mosque because they were targeting Mandhai. The informant recorded Mandhai vowing to establish a jihad cell that would target electric substations, Jewish institutions and a National Guard armory. Mandhai tried to recruit Shukrijumah, but he resisted and declined to join, according to the recordings.

The feds kept their focus on Mandhai and his co-conspirator, Shueyb Mossa Jokhan. After 9/11, the FBI and federal prosecutors ramped up their investigation and eventually indicted the pair in spring 2002. Mandhai was convicted of conspiracy to destroy electrical stations and other targets; Jokhan testified against him.

Former U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman, who prosecuted the case along with current Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger, said it was the country's first successful terrorism-related prosecution after 9/11.

Sloman said he thought it was more than sheer coincidence that Shukrijumah was in Broward at the time the likes of Mohamed Atta and other terrorists were in south Florida.

"It's pretty scary," he said. "Not even Carl Hiaasen could make this stuff up," referring to the satirical Florida novelist.

Last year, Miami-based FBI counter-terrorism agent Brian LeBlanc told the Associated Press that Shukrijumah and two other alleged al Qaida leaders were part of an "external operations council" that designed and approved terrorism plots and recruits. But his two counterparts were killed in U.S. drone attacks, leaving Shukrijumah as the de facto chief and successor to his former boss, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, LeBlanc said.

"He's making operational decisions is the best way to put it," LeBlanc told the AP. "He's looking at attacking the U.S. and other Western countries. Basically through attrition, he has become his old boss."

For all the allegations against Shukrijumah, he's been officially accused only once, on charges that he plotted suicide bomb attacks on the New York subway system in 2009. Two Afghan migrants pleaded guilty in the plot last year and cooperated with prosecutors. A third man is awaiting trial.

The federal indictment, unsealed last year, placed Shukrijumah in Pakistan, where planning for the subway attacks allegedly took place in 2008.

As for Shukrijumah's whereabouts, they're anyone's guess.

Panamanian government officials said in 2004 that Shukrijumah had been there in April 2001 and stayed part of the time at the $15-a-night Hotel Covadonga. He entered on a Guyana passport and a tourist visa.

Honduran government officials reported in 2004 that Shukrijumah had been spotted in an Internet cafe there, making phone calls to the United States and France. FBI officials at the time dismissed the report as fanciful.

But the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, reported just days later that two embassy staffers had spotted a man who closely resembled Shukrijumah at a Subway sandwich shop, according to a diplomatic cable that WikiLeaks obtained and shared with McClatchy.

Around that same time, the FBI and the Justice Department issued an alert for the Mexican border that Shukrijumah could try to enter the United States through Arizona or Texas.

Scheuer, the former CIA analyst, said he'd "seen nothing to make me doubt" reports that Shukrijumah had used Mexican migrant smugglers and perhaps drug traffickers to sneak into the United States more than once since 9/11.

(Chardy and Tamayo report for El Nuevo Herald, Weaver for The Miami Herald. Siobhan Morrissey of The Herald contributed to this article.)

ON THE WEB - WikiLeaks

Cable: Honduras says al Qaida's Shukrijumah visited country