The man killed alongside Anwar al-Aulaqi once ran radical Web sites from his parents’ North Carolina basement and broke his father’s heart when he fled to Yemen to seek jihad as a “proud traitor” to his American homeland.
Samir Khan, 25, who perished with his mentor in the U.S. drone strike over northern Yemen on Friday, according to American and Yemeni officials, was a driving force behind the efforts of al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to promote itself among English speakers.
Khan helped edit and write its English-language magazine, Inspire, a mixture of ideology, first-person accounts of operations and do-it-yourself jihad advice. Copies have been found in the possession of several would-be attackers in the United States and Britain.
“I am proud to be a traitor to America,” Khan wrote in an article in the second issue of the online magazine, published last fall. He described his life as working in the “jihadi media sector” in North Carolina before his beliefs turned him into a “rebel of Washington’s imperialism.”
Born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents, Khan grew up mostly in New York. Along with his devout father, mother and younger brother, he attended the Islamic Organization of North America religious center in the city, where the imam, Steve al-Turk, a family friend, remembers a “very kind, very sweet, very generous” young man growing up in the 1990s.
“He was struggling in his school from peer pressure in his teenage years, so he found coming to the mosque and being with Muslims something that was good for him,” Turk said. He said neither Khan nor his family held views that were violent or extreme.
After the family moved to North Carolina in 2004, Khan became increasingly radical and ran jihad-focused blogs and online message boards from his parents’ home. His father was distressed by this and had him return to New York to visit Turk’s center in hopes of countering this new direction.
“I met him in 2005 or 2006 to try to dissuade him, but by that time, he had made up his mind,” said Turk, who added that he had spoken with Khan’s father Friday morning to offer condolences on the death of his son. “I felt very bad for the parents. He wasted his life.”
When Khan decided to travel to Yemen in October 2009, his father was devastated, Turk said.
Khan traveled with little difficulty, which surprised him: “I mean, I was quiet [sic] open about my beliefs online and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out I was al-Qaeda to the core,” he wrote in Inspire’s fall 2010 issue.
From Sanaa, he traveled to what he called a mujaheddin base in rural Yemen, where he trained and studied. He wrote, “It only brought me gleeful tears and great joy to hear that America labels me as a terrorist.”
He wrote that he was being monitored by FBI officials in Yemen and the United States. Administration officials declined to confirm whether Khan was on the list of approved targets compiled by the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center. But, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, officials said that CIA operatives did not know that Khan was with Aulaqi when conducting the drone strike.
Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) said authorities had tried to stop Khan while he lived in North Carolina. “We tried to shut him down through the FBI, but we couldn’t because he was not inciting violence, he was simply putting out information, and because he kept changing his server,” she said.
Myrick described Khan as a loner whose departure for Yemen presented a “very clear red flag.”
“He was one of the key people in recruiting and radicalizing Americans, and that is of great concern to me. But he was a misguided young person, and really no one celebrates this death,” Myrick said.
Khan is thought to have edited seven issues of Inspire magazine while in Yemen, which devoted much space to the thoughts of Aulaqi.
Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism expert and government consultant who analyzed Khan’s writings, described Khan as a “partner in crime” to Aulaqi who was clearly “soaking in as much knowledge as possible” from the older man.
Working together, the two had become effective as propagandists and recruiters, with Khan’s articles complementing Aulaqi’s Internet sermons and essays. For al-Qaeda, the loss of both men at once is a serious blow, he said.
“If it’s true that both were killed, then al-Qaeda’s English-language outreach program is dead,” Brachman said.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.