Backstreet kid became al-Qaeda brains

The Age/March 5, 2003
By Jenny Booth

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al- Qaeda leader arrested in Pakistan, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. He spent his childhood in dingy immigrant streets of Kuwait's desert towns of cracking masonry and sand-swept roads. These are the homes of the working class from South Asia who work for the oil industry.

Mohammed was born in Kuwait on April 24, 1965. His father was a preacher who had emigrated to the prosperous Gulf emirate from the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

The family was allegedly stripped of Kuwaiti citizenship after a row with a local family, leaving Mohammed to grow up resentfully aware of the gap between his family and prosperous Kuwaiti society. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest international fundamentalist Islamic organisation.

"As a young person he was trying always to find the way he would spend his life," a Kuwaiti official said yesterday.

As a part of that search, Mohammed began speaking at mosques in Fuhayhil and Ahmadi. Those who remember his speeches recall that he was particularly focused on the Palestinian cause.

In 1983 he went to America to study mechanical engineering at Chowan College in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. The following year he moved to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, where fellow students remember that he refused to mix with American students and raised money for Arab causes.

He left in 1986 and went to Peshawar in northern Pakistan to join the Afghan struggle against the Soviet invaders. By that stage Mohammed's three brothers, Zahid, Abed and Aref, were already part of the Afghan jihad. Abed and Aref were to die for the cause.

It was in Peshawar that Mohammed probably first made contact with bin Laden - then an unknown but wealthy young Saudi Arabian who was funding Arab extremists to fly out to fight alongside the mujahideen, with the blessing of the Americans.

For five years Mohammed remained in Pakistan and devoted himself to the cause.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 the US withdrew its support from bin Laden. On February 26, 1993, a rented truck exploded in the underground parking lot of the World Trade Centre, killing six and injuring thousands.

Within weeks the chief suspect was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef; Mohammed's brother, Zahid, was also wanted for questioning. Documents and photographs found in Peshawar in 1993 by American officials investigating the World Trade Centre bombing suggest Mohammed was linked to the operation, though he has never been indicted. By then Mohammed was in Karachi, where he operated an import-export company whose products included bottled holy water from Mecca.

After the World Trade Centre bombing, Mohammed and Yousef joined forces in a new phase of international Islamist terrorism from a base in Manila. They started with a string of small-scale bombings.

The culmination of Mohammed's activity in the Philippines was to have been Operation Bojinka, an ambitious plot to blow up 11 or 12 American airliners simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean.

The plan was foiled accidentally by police who stumbled across incriminating computer files while investigating a possible assassination attempt on the Pope.

Yousef fled to Pakistan and was arrested in Islamabad in 1995, but Mohammed evaded capture and made a new base for himself in Qatar. When the FBI closed in on him in Qatar in 1996 he fled again, this time to Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban.

In 1997, Mohammed's wife and child joined him. At this point he is believed to have moved to the centre of bin Laden's network, becoming the head of its military committee.

He was put in charge of terrorist operations in south-east Asia but by 1999 he was already contemplating reviving the idea behind the abortive Bojinka operation and using civilian airliners as terrorist weapons in a strike on America.

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