From Florida to al Qaida: Militant spent last years at Iran-Pakistan-Afghan border

Pakistan's military reported that Adnan G. El Shukrijumah has been killed Dec. 6, 2014 in a raid conducted in South Waziristan in the northwest of Pakistan, close to the border of Afghanistan. El Shukrijumah, who once lived in the Miami area, is described by FBI as the mastermind of al-Qaeda's global operations.
Pakistan's military reported that Adnan G. El Shukrijumah has been killed Dec. 6, 2014 in a raid conducted in South Waziristan in the northwest of Pakistan, close to the border of Afghanistan. El Shukrijumah, who once lived in the Miami area, is described by FBI as the mastermind of al-Qaeda's global operations. Courtesy of the FBI

Raised-in-America militant Adnan El Shukrijumah, who left his family’s home in Miramar, Fla., in 2001 to become a top leader in al Qaida, evaded detection by U.S. security agencies for more than a decade by moving between safe houses in remote areas at the convergence of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, retired militants familiar with his movements have told McClatchy.

Shukrijumah’s whereabouts since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had been a mystery until Pakistani troops stumbled upon him in late November. He died Saturday in a failed attempt to capture him by helicopter-borne troops in a village in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region.

By their own admission, U.S. authorities had received no intelligence on his whereabouts since he’d reportedly attended a 2004 meeting of second-generation al Qaida leaders in South Waziristan. Few were even aware that he had been elevated to chief of al Qaida’s external operations, a job once held by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Two retired militants, contacted by McClatchy for confirmation of Shukrijumah’s death, recognized him from photographs published by Pakistani news outlets after his killing. Both said they’d seen him in person during his training in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and again at a terrorist safe house in the western Pakistani province of Baluchistan between 2010 and 2012.

From their accounts – given on condition that they be identified only by their militant noms de guerre, citing fear of arrest by the Pakistani authorities – Shukrijumah had moved between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan between 2010 and 2012, before settling in Pakistan’s North Waziristan.

Born in Saudi Arabia of Guyanese parents, Shukrijumah was raised in Brooklyn before moving with his parents to Miramar, northwest of Miami, where his father was imam at a local mosque. He studied off and on at Broward Community College but left home, apparently to join al Qaida.

He last visited his parents in Florida in 2001, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. His possible ties to the 9/11 hijackers, who also lived in South Florida, have been the subject of speculation for years.

He was elevated to the FBI’s most-wanted list in March 2003 and was indicted in 2009 for allegedly plotting to bomb the New York subway.

The timing of Shukrijumah’s ascent to a top al Qaida post is not precisely known. But the ex-militants provided previously unknown details of his activities in South Asia, where the militants said he relied heavily on the support of ethnic Baluch militants he’d befriended in the late 1990s while training at an al Qaida camp near Kabul, the Afghanistan capital.

“I often saw him hanging out with his Baluch friends at an open-air water faucet at the training complex in Shakar Dara,” said Okasha, a former Afghan Taliban commander who now lives near Islamabad. Shakar Dara is a village outside Kabul.

The dates provided by the ex-militants were hazy because they follow the Islamic calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle and is shorter than the Western calendar. But they generally coincide with the FBI’s assertion that Shukrijumah decided to join al Qaida’s jihad in the late 1990s and underwent training in Afghanistan in the use of weapons, explosives and battle tactics.

Okasha said Shukrijumah trained under al Qaida for “a year or two” some time after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, at the same time as Okasha said he was undergoing advanced guerrilla training elsewhere in the complex.

He said the Baluch militants’ network provided Shukrijumah with security of movement, access to communications and safe houses in Baluchistan, where a separatist insurgency has raged for years, and in the neighboring Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan.

“Baba” Bashir, a former operative of the Haqqani Network, the Islamist insurgent group that operates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and who now is based near the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi, said he’d seen Shukrijumah “several times” between 2010 and 2012 at terrorist safe houses in different parts of Baluchistan.

He was accompanied by ethnic Baluch militants belonging to various factions, including the Baluchistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a virulently anti-Shiite Muslim group that is al Qaida’s only true Pakistani affiliate and has also staged attacks in Iran.

Bashir remembered Shukrijumah because of the keen interest he showed in each part of Baluchistan he visited.

“He was an enthusiastic tourist. He would explore the entire area, visiting every local place of interest,” he said.

Okasha said he’d gathered, from talking to ranking commanders of various Afghan and Pakistani militant groups, that Shukrijumah had been based in eastern Iran in 2010-11, visited Pakistan briefly in late 2011 or early 2012, traveled to Afghanistan for “a year or so,” and had then settled in North Waziristan “quite a while ago.”

Bashir said former Haqqani Network colleagues had said Shukrijumah frequently visited Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group’s military commander, who practically ruled North Waziristan until the Pakistani military launched an offensive earlier this year.

Over time, the two became friends, assuring Shukrijumah access to the network of safe houses and camps operated by the network’s key local ally, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, in the Dattakhel area of North Waziristan, Bashir said.

Shukrijumah decided to leave when it became apparent that a 5-year-old peace agreement between the Pakistani military and Gul Bahadur’s faction, which had held in the initial stages of the campaign in North Waziristan, would collapse, as it did in November.

Shukrijumah relocated to the inaccessible Shawal Valley region, which straddles the boundary of North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

His pre-emptive relocation enabled him to evade Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence directorate, even after the June launch of the military offensive in North Waziristan. The ISI assumed Shukrijumah, like other Arabic-speaking al Qaida operatives, had fled the country, possibly to Iraq or Syria.

But he’d fled only as far as South Waziristan, and in late November, when Pakistani air force warplanes and army helicopter gunships unleashed a fearsome campaign of attacks on militant camps in the Shawal Valley, the ISI received a tip that Shukrijumah had been sighted in Wana, an area controlled by another Haqqani Network affiliate.

The tip came after Pakistani authorities warned the local Ahmedzai Wazir tribe to stop harboring foreign militants fleeing the military campaign in North Waziristan.

The tip said that Shukrijumah had taken up residence in a small settlement of Afghan refugees near Wana. According to Pakistani news accounts, authorities intended to capture Shukrijumah alive, but Shukirjumah resisted and after an hours-long gun battle was killed by the attacking troops.