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Why Wasn’t American Al-Qaeda Ghostwriter on No-Fly List?

U.S. citizen Samir Khan, believed to have written al-Qaeda's online recruiting magazine, managed to flee the country on a plane last year. We've known of him since 2007.

by
Annie Jacobsen

Bio

July 26, 2010 - 12:00 am

Earlier this month, a 24-year-old North Carolina man named Samir Khan was fingered by U.S. officials as being the ghostwriter for al-Qaeda’s newest recruiting tool — a 70-page online magazine called Inspire and published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In October 2009, Khan fled the United States for Yemen, where he is currently believed to be.

That an American citizen on the run is behind this glossy, new jihad recruiting tool has people up in arms. But there is another important question which should be asked by anyone concerned with how much money goes into TSA’s ever-increasing annual budget, and how little they seem to do. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be getting $8.2 billion for its 2011 fiscal year, up half a billion dollars from 2010.

With all the money and manpower being pumped into the aviation security net, how did Samir Khan — a known jihadist — manage to slip through the TSA’s no-fly list and escape to Yemen with such ease?

Khan was born in Saudi Arabia. He moved with his family to Queens, New York, when he was seven. There, his radicalization began, according to Steve Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Emerson’s group has been monitoring Khan since 2007, when the aspiring jihadist was running a jihad blog out of his parents’ suburban home in North Carolina. Last week, Emerson told CNN: “The FBI took no action because [Khan] was exercising his free speech.” Also according to Emerson, the FBI saw Khan as a “lone terrorist” and not connected to a bigger network.

Apparently, they were wrong.

The Inspire terror guide includes a section on bomb-making instructions, information about how to send encrypted messages, and an interview with another American jihadist, the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — wanted by the Obama administration dead or alive. Emerson calls Inspire “a jihadist version of Popular Mechanics, Psychology Today, and ‘Ask Ann Landers’” mixed into one. What separates this magazine from other online jihadist websites and magazines is that it is written in slick English prose designed to “inspire” Westerners to join al-Qaeda. North Carolina Congresswoman Sue Myrick, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Fox News that Khan should be “stripped of his citizenship and charged with aiding and abetting al-Qaeda.”

But she is a little late in the game. If the system had worked, Khan would have been taken in for questioning when he tried to flee the United States in October of 2009.

For that, Congresswoman Myrick can look to her Democratic counterpart, David Price — Chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee — for answers. During the subcommittee’s March 2010 review of the TSA budget request of $8.2 billion for fiscal year 2011, which can be viewed online, Congressman Price praises TSA’s then-acting head Gale Rossides. “You have stepped up admirably to the demands of your role,” Price says, and then he thanks her for doing a “thankless job.” (Since when is a six-figure salaried job “thankless”?) A few minutes into the hearing, Price states that the taxpayers have already provided TSA with “$400 million to vet passengers for links to terrorism in order to prevent certain individuals from boarding aircraft.”

This is the key to the problem with TSA: not just with Samir Khan, but with each one of the TSA’s myriad of security holes revealed, be it the Christmas Day terrorist attack on an airplane over Detroit or the near-escape of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad on an airplane bound for Dubai. No matter how many billions of dollars the taxpayers give TSA, the agency refuses to answer specific questions about how and why it repeatedly fails.

Reporting on TSA, as I have now for over six years, I’ve never gotten a straight answer from countless spokespersons I have spoken to there. Regarding Khan, I spoke with TSA’s Suzanne Trevino last Wednesday — asking her point blank: “Why wasn’t Samir Khan on the TSA’s no-fly list? And if he was, then how come the system again failed?” TSA’s Trevino “doesn’t know” and promised to get back to me.

I’ve got a six-year education on the answer I’ll get. It will be a variation on the line: “The no-fly list is classified; we don’t discuss it.” It’s what TSA will always say on this issue.

Meanwhile the facts are clear. TSA has spent $400 million on a database of names that was unable to flag an individual named Samir Khan — a resident of House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price’s own state — despite the fact that the FBI already had Khan in their sights.

“How far does someone have to go before we take them seriously?” Congresswoman Myrick asked during her Fox News interview. This is a question that she and her fellow congressman should be asking Gale Rossides of the TSA, rather than thanking her for doing a “thankless job.”

Annie Jacobsen writes the "Backstory" blog (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/back-story/) for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
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