By Eric Rich and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 10, 2006
BALTIMORE -- He was the studious one in Janis Sanford's social studies class at Owings Mills High School, the teenager who stood apart from his suburban Baltimore peers for his no-nonsense attitude. Majid Khan worked at the family gas station after school and, in his free time, indulged his interest in computers.
But something happened to the serious young man after he graduated in 1999, when his life took a dramatic -- and much-disputed -- turn.
Khan, now 26, is one of the 14 "high-value" terrorism suspects transferred Monday to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, men the government considered so dangerous they had been held by the CIA at secret foreign prisons for years. Khan is expected to stand trial on terrorism charges after Congress approves a new set of rules for the special military courts that will decide the fates of the 14 suspects.
This week's allegations stunned Sanford, who said the young man she taught in her English-as-a-second-language class could not, as alleged, have plotted to blow up gas stations or poison drinking water in U.S. reservoirs.
"It doesn't make any sense to me," said Sanford, who taught many of the school's foreign students. "I can't imagine it.
"He wasn't one of these kinds of fool-around kids. He just seemed serious. . . . He wasn't a light-hearted jokester."
In brief interviews Thursday and Friday, his father said the charges are false. "He's a terrorist, my son? No!" Khan Ali said, speaking in the family's brick duplex in Windsor Mill. "I don't accept this."
The father spoke only hours after the first official confirmation of what he and others had long presumed: that his son had been held by the CIA since he disappeared in Pakistan in 2003.
The family moved to the United States in 1996 and settled in the Baltimore area, authorities said. After graduating, Khan married a woman in Pakistan and became a father. Though the child is now 2, Ali said, his son has been in custody since before her birth and has had no contact with her. Ali said his son had been in Pakistan less than a year when, in 2003, he was arrested by Pakistani authorities.
At one point, in seeming contradiction, he said of his son, "He has been brainwashed." He also acknowledged that a relative is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Authorities last week described that unidentified relative as an uncle, but Ali said the relationship is more distant.
Before Khan was detained, he and his family lived in a modest home in Catonsville. Some recalled that, for a time several years ago, the house appeared to be under surveillance. Neighbor John Owen said another resident once called him in the middle of the night to say that a person was sitting in a car outside Owen's home. Owen said he went out and tapped on the window.
"This guy holds up a shield," Owen said, referring to a law enforcement badge, "and said, 'I'm watching a house.' "
Khan's name has surfaced in other terrorism prosecutions. But until the government's disclosure this week, details about his case were sketchy.
A single-page "biography" released by the office of John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, portrays Khan as a figure who had contact with terrorist operatives from Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. U.S. officials also allege that Khan took orders from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the man accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
According to the document, Khan became involved in a "local Islamic organization" before returning to Pakistan in early 2002. The federal accusations say his radicalization proceeded rapidly once he was back. A cousin and the uncle, both of whom were al-Qaeda operatives, introduced Khan to Mohammed, the document alleges.
Before long, Khan was training to make bomb components and discussing terrorist attacks that could be conducted in the United States, according to the document and government officials.
Mohammed allegedly asked Khan to research poisoning U.S. reservoirs and considered him for an operation to assassinate the Pakistani president. The document also alleges that Mohammed orchestrated a test that "showed that Khan was committed to being a suicide operative."
Mohammed, the document says, "selected Khan as an operative for a possible attack inside the United States . . . because of his excellent English and extensive knowledge of the United States."
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, said al-Qaeda values recruits who have lived in the United States. The government asserted that Khan's familiarity with the gas station business might have given him insight into a vulnerability that could be exploited.
"His familiarity with the Baltimore-Washington area, fluency in English, as well as his study of fuel tank explosives and water reservoir vulnerabilities made him a logical choice to be on KSM's [Khalid Sheik Mohammed's] list of operatives," said Levin, who has no firsthand knowledge about Khan.
Khan also is accused of delivering money to an operative for Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian extremist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, to "support terrorist attacks against Western targets," the government alleged.
Furthermore, according to the document, Khan received help from Aafia Siddiqui, a scientist accused of helping al-Qaeda. According to the government, Khan also recommended the recruitment of Iyman Faris, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was convicted of providing material support to terrorists in 2003 after allegedly plotting to take down suspension bridges in New York.
Khan's wife, Rubia, is in Pakistan, according to family and friends. Khalid Khawaja, a former member of the Pakistani intelligence service who is acting as a spokesman for her, said information obtained through interrogations in the CIA prison system is inherently unreliable.
"When you are in that kind of custody and the worst kind of human treatment, you can get them to say any kind of statement," said Khawaja, who was reached by telephone in Pakistan. "They don't have any evidence against Majid Khan as far as I know. . . . We don't believe he has done anything. He is a victim of this so-called war on terrorism by George Bush."
A central figure in Khan's case is another Pakistani national, Uzair Paracha, who was sentenced in New York earlier this year to 30 years in prison for providing material support to terrorists.
Authorities allege that Khan and Mohammed planned to use the Paracha family's textile-importing business to smuggle explosives into the United States and blow up underground gasoline storage tanks in Maryland. Paracha was accused of attempting to help Khan reenter the United States from Pakistan illegally.
Paracha denied wrongdoing, saying that he was used by Khan and Mohammed and that a confession to FBI agents was "what they wanted to hear." But he also admitted that his father, Saifullah Paracha, had told him about Khan's terrorism ties. The elder Paracha, who also had met with Osama bin Laden, is being held as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo Bay.
According to an interrogation summary filed in the case, Khan said that the younger Paracha had no knowledge of the plan to blow up gas stations and was merely "willing to help a fellow Muslim at his father's request." Khan said that while he considered recruiting Paracha for al-Qaeda, he was probably unsuitable because he "had no extremist views and was not really a practicing Muslim," according to the summary.
Edward D. Wilford, one of Paracha's attorneys, said the newly released information about Khan -- and his transfer to Guantanamo Bay -- is an important development for Paracha's case, which is currently on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
Lack of access to Khan and Mohammed hurt Paracha's defense, Wilford said. "It's interesting that everything we couldn't get is now part of the public record because it serves the administration's purposes," he added.
Eggen reported from Washington. Staff researchers Julie Tate and Meg Smith contributed to this report.