article

09.10.09

Mohamed Atta's Successor

”Jafar the Pilot,” leader of al Qaeda’s post-9/11 ambitions for a nuclear attack, is on the move again. The Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner reports that he may be using a Saudi diplomatic passport.

One of the world’s most wanted terrorists, with a $5 million bounty on his head and a suspected desire to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, has been traveling across the Middle East recently with relative impunity, courtesy of a Saudi diplomatic passport, a U.S. intelligence source tells The Daily Beast. 

Five-foot-four Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah was selected after 9/11 by Osama bin Laden to be the terror group’s next Mohamed Atta for any second wave of attacks on America. The Saudi-born el-Shukrijumah was the son of a radical Muslim cleric who moved his family to the U.S. in 1985 and settled eventually in Miramar, Florida, a Fort Lauderdale suburb. There he became friends with José Padilla, who was later arrested as an “enemy combatant,” and also with Mandhai and Shueyb Mossa Jokhan, who were jailed for plotting to blow up Florida power plants, a National Guard armory, and Jewish businesses. Adnan attended flight schools in Florida and Oklahoma, and within al Qaeda was dubbed Jafar al-Tayyar (“Jafar the Pilot”).

Video screenshot

As a 22-year-old in 1997, Adnan participated in an "English as a Second Language" class. The FBI obtained a videotape of him giving a presentation to the class about how to jumpstart a car. His fluency in English worried FBI analysts, since it meant he could more easily slip in and out of western countries without possibly raising a red flag that a heavily accented Middle Easterner might.

Four months before 9/11, Adnan, who had by then become a naturalized American, also obtained an associate’s degree in computer engineering from Broward Community College. According to published reports, he had accumulated at least five passports, including one from Saudi Arabia, and had traveled in the months leading up to 9/11 to the Caribbean and Panama, where intelligence officials believe he met with other al Qaeda members.

Gerald Posner: The Man Who Saved the Capitol

John Avlon: Bush Wrecked 9/11
For the longest time, American intelligence did not know the real identity of Jafar the Pilot. An FBI file was mistakenly opened in one of Adnan’s aliases, Mohammed Sher Mohammed Khan. The first detainee to give up any information about him was Abu Zubaydah, sometime after May 2002, maybe even as late as August when Zubaydah was waterboarded. He told his interrogators that Jafar the Pilot would deliver a so-called American Hiroshima, an ambitious plan to detonate dirty bombs (conventional explosives filled with radioactive material) inside America. But Zubaydah did not know Jafar’s real name. It wasn’t until interrogators got hold of Khalid Sheik Mohammad—who had met Adnan in Pakistan—that they discovered he had been a Florida resident for 16 years. U.S. military officials realized they had been finding Adnan’s name in “pocket litter”—documents and scraps taken from prisoners and dead al Qaeda soldiers—but did not know who he was.

Samuel P. Jacobs: 9/11 Novels Worth ReadingAfter identifying him, the U.S. government put a $5 million reward on his head. In 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller named Adnan as one of seven al Qaeda members planning terrorist attacks for that summer or fall. Ashcroft alleged that Adnan had personally scouted targets in New York City and the Panama Canal. In 2007, the New York Post broke the news that Adnan was "al Qaeda's operations leader on a nuclear terror plot targeting the United States" stating that bin Laden had picked him "to detonate nuclear bombs simultaneously in several U.S. cities."

A senior CIA intelligence analyst told The Daily Beast that the agency had tracked Adnan “somewhere in late spring to early summer” on several trips in the Middle East. On those travels, he used an alias—which the analyst did not disclose—and traveled with relative impunity on a Saudi diplomatic passport.The news of Adnan’s travels was alarming to the American intelligence community because it had previously concluded he was in Pakistan, coordinating the fight against Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A U.S. counterterrorism official summarized to me the mainstream U.S. intelligence view: “It is generally believed that El Shukrijumah stays in the tribal areas of Pakistan—where he probably thinks he’s more secure—and does not travel abroad.”

According to the same analyst, who disclosed the discovery of Adnan’s travels on a Saudi diplomatic passport, the CIA requested “offline” that the State Department make an official inquiry of the Saudis about the passport to determine its authenticity. The CIA provided the State Department both the passport number and the alias. According to the CIA analyst, the State Department refused, telling the agency that its information was “not reliable enough” to question the Saudis.

When contacted for on-the-record statements, the CIA declined to comment. A State Department official told me, “It would be inappropriate for the department to comment about the reliability (or not) of the information you have been provided on the activities of the CIA.” The Saudi Embassy ignored telephone calls and emails seeking a comment, as well as information about their own checks and controls over the issuance and use of diplomatic passports. Nor would the Saudis disclose the number of diplomatic passports they have issued—said to be very large since many of the several thousand royal family members prefer to travel with them.

The last official Saudi statement about Adnan is from a September 5, 2003, press release in which the Washington embassy said that he was “not a Saudi citizen.” In the short statement, the ministry of interior announced “that Shukrijumah is not, and never has been, a Saudi citizen. His father, Gulshai El Shukrijumah, worked in Saudi Arabia for 27 years as an expatriate employee until 1986 when the family moved to the United States. The father did not have Saudi citizenship. His son, Adnan El Shukrijumah, is also not a Saudi citizen and if he is traveling using a Saudi passport, then he has obtained it and is using it illegally.”

“It’s better when some like el-Shukrijumah stays contained in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says the CIA analyst who provided the information about his travels. “It’s when he starts moving again that everyone starts to take notice.”

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11 and terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.