MIAMI – A suspected al-Qaida operative who lived for more than 15 years in the U.S. 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 9/11 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.
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 U.S. drone attacks, leaving Shukrijumah as the de facto chief and successor to Mohammed – his former 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 U.S. 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’s mother, Zurah Adbu Ahmed, said Thursday on the front stoop of her small home in suburban Miramar, Fla., that her son frequently talked about what he considered the excesses of American society – such as alcohol and drug abuse and women wearing skimpy clothes – but that he did not condone violence. She also said she has not had contact with her son for several years.
“This boy would never do evil stuff. He is not an evil person,” she said. “He loved this country. He never had a problem with the United States.”
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 a 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, N.Y.
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, where he underwent basic and advanced training in the use of automatic weapons, explosives, battle tactics, surveillance and camouflage.