New Al Qaida chief is former US resident

Operative lived in US for 15 years, now head of global operations.

311_9/11 attacks (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_9/11 attacks
(photo credit: Associated Press)
A suspected Al Qaida operative who lived for more than 15 years in the United States has become chief of the terror network's global operations, the FBI says, marking the first time a leader so intimately familiar with American society has been placed in charge of planning attacks.
Adnan Shukrijumah, 35, has taken over a position once held by September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in 2003, Miami-based FBI counterterrorism agent Brian LeBlanc told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. That puts him in regular contact with al-Qaida's senior leadership, including Osama bin Laden, LeBlanc said.
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Shukrijumah and two other leaders were part of an "external operations council" that designed and approved terrorism plots and recruits, but his two counterparts were killed in US drone attacks, leaving Shukrijumah as the de facto chief and successor to Mohammed, his former boss.
"He's making operational decisions is the best way to put it," said LeBlanc, the FBI's lead Shukrijumah investigator. "He's looking at attacking the US and other Western countries. Basically through attrition, he has become his old boss."
The FBI has been searching for Shukrijumah since 2003. He is thought to be the only Al Qaida leader to have once held permanent US resident status, or a green card.
Shukrijumah was named earlier this year in a federal indictment as a conspirator in the case against three men accused of plotting suicide bomb attacks on New York's subway system in 2009. The indictment marked the first criminal charges against Shukrijumah, who previously had been sought only as a witness.
Shukrijumah is also suspected of playing a role in plotting of potential Al Qaida bomb attacks in Norway and a never-executed attack on subways in the United Kingdom, but LeBlanc said no direct link has yet emerged. Travel records and other evidence also indicate Shukrijumah did research and surveillance in spring 2001 for a never-attempted plot to disrupt commerce in the Panama Canal by sinking a freighter there, LeBlanc explained.
Shukrijumah was labeled a "clear and present danger" to the US in 2004 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The US is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and the FBI also is releasing an age-enhanced photo of what he may look like today.
It's natural he would focus on attacking on the US LeBlanc said.
"He knows how the system works. He knows how to get a driver's license. He knows how to get a passport," LeBlanc said.
'Came to the US after father took post at Flordia mosque'
LeBlanc said the new charges were brought after the New York subway bomb suspects identified him to investigators as their Al Qaida superior. The New York suspects provided other key information about his Al Qaida status.
"It was basically Adnan who convinced them to come back to the United States and do this attack," LeBlanc said. "His ability to manipulate someone like that and direct that, I think it speaks volumes."
Before turning to radical strains of Islam, Shukrijumah lived in Miramar with his mother and five siblings, excelling at computer science and chemistry courses while studying at community college. He had come to South Florida in 1995 when his father, a Muslim cleric and missionary trained in Saudi Arabia, decided to take a post at a Florida mosque after several years at a mosque in Brooklyn, New York.
At some point in the late 1990s, according to the FBI, Shukrijumah became convinced that he must participate in "jihad," or holy war, to fight perceived persecution against Muslims in places like Chechnya and Bosnia.
That led to training camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where he underwent basic and advanced training in the use of automatic weapons, explosives, battle tactics, surveillance and camouflage.
Shukrijumah was born in Saudi Arabia. He is a citizen of Guyana, a small South American country where his father was born. His father died in 2004.
The FBI is still hoping to bring charges in South Florida against Shukrijumah, but key information about him was provided by Guantanamo Bay detainees such as Mohammed, whose use as a witness would be difficult.
"For us, it's never been a dry hole. It's always been an active investigation and it's global in nature," LeBlanc said. "We have never stopped working it."
Associated Press writer Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.