Newsday: Samir Khan, al-Qaida figure, grew up on Long Island
Newsday – by Matthew Chayes, Anthony M. Destefano, Robert E. Kessler, Greg Lacour, and Víctor Manuel Ramos
An al-Qaida propagandist killed last week by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen went to high school on Long Island, where classmates remember his evolution to an anti-American radical.
Samir Khan, 25, who published the Web-based extremist magazine Inspire, was about 7 years old when he came to the United States. He lived in Westbury for about a decade, attending W.T. Clarke High School in the East Meadow school district from 1999 to 2003.
After high school, he moved with his family to Charlotte, N.C. Khan then came to the attention of New York-area terrorism investigators. Surveillance revealed that he was making "regular contacts" with two men on Long Island who were "persons of interest" in terror investigations, said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and a law enforcement source. They would not elaborate on those probes.
Khan — who wrote an essay last year titled "I am proud to be a traitor to America" — was killed in a strike alongside U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, described by President Barack Obama as a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. They were the first American citizens known to have been killed in such an operation.
Law-enforcement sources, family acquaintances, former classmates and Khan's own words paint a picture of a boy who grew increasingly obsessed with radical faith and hatred of the United States while living on Long Island.
The Long Island connection to a top al-Qaida militant shocked not only the Muslim community but those who grew up alongside Khan.
When Khan started high school, he had some common interests with other students, classmates said. He played video games and junior varsity football.
"Before he became so fanatic, almost terrorist kind of guy — before that, he was a pretty normal guy. Then all of a sudden he just became different," said classmate Bobby Khan of Holtsville, now a physician, who is not related to Samir Khan.
Samir Khan's family enlisted respected American Muslims to dissuade him from his radical take on Islam. But his estrangement from his adopted homeland grew sharper after the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
In the Clarke 2003 yearbook, he identifies himself as a "Mujahid," a Muslim engaged in "jihad" or struggle, who wants "to go overseas and study Islamic Law and other subjects that deal with Islam." It includes a religious saying under his name: If you give Satan an inch, he'll be a ruler.
King, who has held controversial hearings to point to extremists among U.S. Muslims and homegrown terrorism, said, "It's shocking to see that a young man who is raised on Long Island would turn out to be a traitor to his country."
King added: "Samir Khan shows how radical Islam has even penetrated our communities."
Muslim leaders said Khan's actions should not be blamed on his faith. "Our community has always condemned this kind of extremism," said Mohammad Akhtar, president of the Islamic Association of Long Island. The religion of Islam is the religion of peace, and some people who have misunderstood it have really hijacked our religion because Islam prohibits causing the kind of harm of terrorism."
Arriving in the U.S.
Information from sources, property records and acquaintances helps to piece together Khan's story.
His parents, Zafar and Sarah Khan, originally from Pakistan, arrived in the United States from Saudi Arabia in 1992, where Samir Khan, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, had been born in 1985. The Khans lived briefly in Queens but moved to Westbury the following year, where they raised Samir, an older daughter and a younger son.
Zafar Khan's worries about his middle child grew during his high school years, said family friend Steve Elturk, imam of the Islamic Organization of North America in Warren, Mich.
Elturk said the elder Khan — whom he had first met at a Muslim community event in Flushing, Queens, in the mid-1990s — approached him seeking religious guidance for his son.
Elturk spoke to Samir Khan, visited the family homes in Westbury and later in Charlotte, and eventually had Samir Khan come to his Michigan mosque.
Elturk said he found Khan to be a troubled young man who, after feeling isolated and different from high school classmates, turned to extremism.
"He developed these militant views through the Internet, and he had arguments with his father about it," Elturk said. "He became very much convinced that America is an imperialist country that supports dictators and supports Israel blindly. . . . He was not promoting violence, but he had the opinion that the use of indiscriminate killing was justified."
His increasingly worried parents forbid Khan from using the Internet, but he found other ways to obtain extremist literature, Elturk said.
Khan's attitudes did not go unnoticed in the hallways of Clarke High School, several former classmates said.
He refused to recite the morning Pledge of Allegiance.
Though other students cried or expressed shock after 9/11, Khan seemed unaffected and blamed Americans for bringing the terrorist attacks on themselves.
"Before 9/11, people still saw his change but didn't make much of it," Bobby Khan said. "But afterwards, more people decided to question his ideology and be like, 'Is he trying to be like them [the Sept. 11 terrorists]? Does he think like them?' "
He provoked arguments with classmates on terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American foreign policy. Some classmates were incensed.
"They'd say, 'What's your deal, man? You hate America?' " recalled Christopher Ingram, Khan's football teammate. "And he'd have something stupid to say back."
Ingram said Samir Khan and others were sometimes the butts of ethnic mockery.
In the 10th grade, Khan started wearing a kufi, a brimless rounded cap some Muslims wear, and became more isolated as he went from a teen who talked about girls, sports and video games to a youth obsessed with religion.
"All he said was he just wanted to do good. He wanted to go to heaven. He's like, 'Before I was bad, so I think now I'm just going to follow my religion in the most proper way' — and he didn't want to commit sin anymore," said Bobby Khan.
Leaving a trail
A senior law-enforcement intelligence official said that Samir Khan was going through a long process of self-indoctrination and along the way left his footprint on the web.
In a trail that dates to 2001, he posted online comments about starting an Islamic state or caliphate. By 2005 he had changed his online name to Amir Ibn Zafar Khan. In 2007, he adopted the nickname of "Insha Allah Shaheed," which translates to "God Willing to Be a Martyr," according to the law-enforcement source.
That year, he burst into public notoriety after news reports surfaced about his publishing a pro al-Qaida website from Charlotte, where his father, a computer analyst, had moved the family to take a new job.
The website, "Jihad Recollections," carried messages from Osama bin Laden and other extremists waging holy wars in Islam's name.
The family tensions continued, Elturk said.
Zafar Khan declined to be interviewed Tuesday at the family's northeast Charlotte home, a two-story brick house in a subdivision adjoining a golf course. In a statement Wednesday, the family deplored the U.S. government's role in the strike and asked why their son did not get due process as a U.S. citizen.
In Charlotte, Khan's parents continued to try hard to dissuade him from his extremist views and sought the counsel of community members, imams and even psychiatric counseling, Elturk said.
Steve Glocke, who lives across the street from the Khan home, said he took a potted plant to them on Monday as a gesture of sympathy. He said that Samir Khan's mother, Sarah, was "just leveled."
"They're salt-of-the-earth people, man, just the nicest people you'd ever want to meet, and they did everything they could," Glocke said. "They're just devastated."
Trying to help
Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, said he, too, offered to speak to the Khans' son when news of his jihadist publication broke in 2007.
He met twice with Samir Khan in Hough's home, with Zafar Khan, a local imam and three or four other Muslim leaders present.
Both times, Hough said he and the others tried to convince Samir Khan to abandon his radical beliefs. Samir Khan mainly listened but "once or twice tried to state his case" that the U.S. government needed to be held accountable for killing and abusing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Abdullah Mahmud, 25, a restaurant manager who was another acquaintance of Khan in Charlotte, said Khan was once rebuked for giving a fiery anti-American talk at the Islamic Society of Greater Charlotte.
"He alienated many people in the community because people were very scared about talking about these things . . . and they didn't want to have to face the FBI," Mahmud said.
Khan surfaced last year in Yemen, home to an al-Qaida branch that has hatched anti-U.S. plots, including the attempted underwear bombing attack of a Detroit-bound plane in 2009. His Inspire Web magazine spouted anti-Western ideology for English-language readers and instructed followers on how to conduct terrorist attacks until his death last week.
"I am an individual convinced that Islam's claim to power in the modern world is not going to be as easy as walking down a red carpet or driving through a green light," he wrote in his "proud to be a traitor" essay. "I am acutely aware that body parts have to be torn apart, skulls have to be crushed and blood has to be spilled in order for this to be a reality."
Joe Ginobbi, a former high school classmate of Khan, is now an EMT for the New York City Fire Department who trains on how to respond to the type of mass casualty attacks that Khan celebrated through his publications. He described what Khan was doing as "sickening."
"It just bothers me that someone I went to high school with, someone I had conversations with, that I considered one of my friends — that he was the enemy," Ginobbi said. "I'm doing the job where I'm on the front line and it could've been him that's pulling the trigger."
With Patrick Whittle, Nicholas Spangler and The Associated Press