A batch of newly released FBI records shows that agents weighed turning a former North Carolina al Qaida propagandist, Samir Khan, into an informant while the community college he attended considered expelling him over possible security threats to other students and faculty.
In 2008, a year before Khan traveled to Yemen and started an influential English-language al Qaida magazine, Khan was taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. He also was busy working on his radical blog promoting a holy war and writing that “fighting was obligatory.”
School officials reached out to the FBI, concerned about what he was posting, documents show. They discussed the possible threat Khan posed as well as how others might react to his inflammatory postings. Community college officials created a CD-ROM of Khan’s campus computer work and considered expelling him on “either the threat to security he posed to the campus or his academic deficiencies,” according to the FBI files.
“The primary goal of this investigation is to determine if Khan is influencing/did influence anyone to commit or attempt to commit an act of terror,” reads an Oct. 2, 2008, FBI report. “A secondary goal is to determine if Khan is being directed by a higher authority/authorities to do so.”
The files are part of a second set of records McClatchy acquired through the federal Freedom of Information Act that show how closely agents were watching the former North Carolina blogger. Khan went on to become the editor of Yemen-based Inspire, al Qaida’s glossy online magazine, which was influential in radicalizing and recruiting extremists worldwide.
Security analysts and top officials have said the magazine’s influence may have extended to last week’s assault on the offices of a satirical French newspaper. One of the men involved in the attack, Saïd Kouachi, traveled in 2011 to Yemen and received training. His brother, Chérif Kouachi, told a French news network before he died that they were financed by Anwar al Awlaki, a radical cleric from the United States who worked with Khan to start Inspire.
In a 2013 issue of Inspire, Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the 12 people killed last week in the attack on the weekly newspaper, was featured on a hit list under the caption “A Bullet a Day Keeps the Infidel Away.”
Khan, 25, along with Awlaki, was killed three years ago in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike. Both were U.S. citizens.
Al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate claimed this week to have given the Paris shooters money for terrorist operations.
On Thursday, the White House cited the magazine Inspire as part of the “unique challenge” that intelligence officials face in countering extremist messages propagated over the Internet. Press Secretary Josh Earnest said those terrorists were being closely watched even when they operated as far away as Yemen.
“It’s worth noting,” Earnest said, referring to Khan, “ . . . that the original author of this publication has been wiped off the battlefield.”
The second batch of FBI records is heavily redacted, but the documents illustrate how much the FBI wanted to know about Khan and whom he was talking to and meeting with. The findings were first reported by the news website Vice News.
Depending on what the FBI found, agents considered turning Khan into an informant or prosecuting him for conspiracy to aid a terrorist organization and soliciting violence.
Jibril Hough, a Khan family friend, said he was disappointed to learn that Central Piedmont Community College had considered expelling Khan. He said the college’s actions seemed contrary to the efforts of most universities encouraging freedom of speech, thought and disagreement. While he disagreed with what Khan promoted, Hough said, Khan didn’t break any laws through his writings.
Community college officials said this week that they’d been concerned about potential violence to Khan, as well as any dangers he posed to the school or its faculty, said Jeff Lowrance, a spokesman for the college.
“The college had two concerns,” Lowrance said. “One was for the student’s safety. The fear was that fellow students would see these posts, and would that lead to some type of confrontation. And two, was there any risk to the college at large. And apparently the authorities did not believe there was a significant risk. ”
CORRECTION: This corrects an earlier version about al Qaida financial support of the Paris assault. It's unclear how much was provided.