National Security

Radicalization of Charlotte jihadist came gradually, FBI files show

The former Charlotte, N.C., blogger-turned-al Qaida propagandist, Samir Khan, called Charlotte Muslims “wussies” for not fighting jihad overseas. And he once tried, unsuccessfully, to get a job as a baggage handler for a U.S. airline.

Those are among the findings of hundreds of pages of records released by the FBI that document the scrutiny that federal agents had over the former Central Piedmont Community College student who started writing a radical blog in the basement of his family’s Charlotte home.

Khan, 25, along with radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki, was killed three years ago in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike. Both were U.S. citizens.

The FBI records were released via a Freedom of Information Act request to the news website Vice News.

It’s unusual for the bureau to release investigative files so soon. Citing the growing threat from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, FBI experts think their release may be part of a larger effort by the administration to give the public insight into how the agency is conducting investigations of terrorist groups that use social media and the Internet to radicalize and recruit young people.

Khan’s early writings seem to outline several tactics currently being used by the Islamic State, including launching a “media war” to coincide with the military conflict. He also “espouses beheading of journalists,” the FBI investigation found.

“I think the FBI is sending a message to the public that this is a serious problem that isn’t letting up, and that they’re dedicating significant resources to address it,” said Martin Reardon, a former chief of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Operations Center.

Khan eventually became editor of Inspire, al Qaida’s glossy online magazine that was influential in radicalizing and recruiting extremists worldwide. Reardon said Khan also helped recruits travel to Yemen.

The FBI files paint a picture of how a troubled young man evolved into a radical propagandist with the help of the web.

Khan had a lot of time to himself. He worked the night shift at a local motel near Northlake Mall in North Charlotte. He had few friends. He prayed regularly at a local mosque, but generally came and left without speaking to anyone, the files reveal.

It was online where Khan found a community of like-minded individuals. He could exchange ideas. His opinions were respected – and encouraged.

Khan started his blog in 2004 and appears to have caught the attention of the FBI in 2006 after it found radical content, including nearly 200 videos that depicted the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

His early blog posts were actually quiet passive. He described himself as a man of peace and saw jihad more as a mental struggle.

“It was the absolute greatest internal revolution which led to the spreading of Islam,” he wrote, “not by the sword, but by the hearts! Conquering a land is easy, but conquering a heart . . . well, you will need one heck of a philosophy!”

But his posts later took on a sharper tone. He began to advocate for violence abroad. Later, he started writing that “fighting was obligatory.”

An Oct. 5, 2006, response to a reader caught the FBI’s attention. Agents felt that it could have been a sign Khan was “preparing himself physically to join in combat” against the United States.

“This advice is for you and myself,” Khan wrote. “Know that the prophet (s) was absolutely correct when he said Paradise lies under the shade of the sword. Prepare yourself physically by working out fe Sabeelillah (in the cause of Allah); so work harder than the Kafireen (nonbeliever) who train to kill al Muslimeen.”

According to one report in the more than 350-page file, FBI agents also looked into concerns of Middle Eastern residents frequenting a gun range in Belmont, N.C. A friend of Khan’s allegedly invited him to go to the gun range, but the FBI didn’t know if he accepted.

Khan was once allowed to give a sermon at a local mosque where he told attendees they were “wussies” for not fighting jihad oversees. Several were upset and never allowed him to speak publicly at the mosque again.

He was once taken to see a psychiatrist in Maryland who felt that Khan was not suffering from any mental illness “and would eventually outgrow this rebellious state.”

But family and friends were not so sure.

A contact of the Khan family relayed concerns to law enforcement about Samir Khan “desiring to become a martyr.” A family member indicated that the parents of Samir Khan would be “amenable to approach from law enforcement.”

Jibril Hough, a Khan family friend, said he and other leaders of the Charlotte Muslim community tried to convince Khan that radicalism was misguided.

“He was the exception to the rule,” Hough said. “We were hoping it would shake him up. ‘You need to back up and think about what you’re promoting here.’”

FBI spokesman Chris Allen said he could not elaborate on the content in the file. He said the release of the records was part a first batch of records that will be released as part of the FOIA request.