The uncovering of the latest global terror plot has shone a fresh spotlight on the new crop of leaders thought to be running the al-Qa’ida network now that the majority of its founding members have been killed or captured.
It has also forced Americans to confront the reality that many of the key players leading the next generation of Sunni extremists are individuals with strong ties to the United States, including American citizens.
One name above all stood out on the indictment unsealed this week in New York detailing an attempted attack on the city's subway system. Adnan Gulshair al-Shukrijumah is one of al-Qa’ida’s most elusive lynchpins, a man with a $5m bounty on his head who was last seen two weeks before the 11 September attacks in the Caribbean.
Rumours of his whereabouts have kept investigators chasing shadows for much of the past decade, with reports of limited credibility spotting him meeting gangs in Honduras, trying to buy radioactive material in Ontario and becoming a teacher in Morocco.
Investigators believe that the 34-year-old is most likely located in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the only place he could operate with relative impunity.
Over the years his name has been linked to a string of plots, most recently the attempted attack on the New York subway last year.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn say al-Shukrijumah was part of a panel of three al-Qa’ida figures who oversaw the subway plot that has so far led to arrests in the States, Britain, Norway and Germany. The two other men, Saleh al-Somali and Rashid Rauf, a Birmingham-born al-Qa’ida operative, are believed to have both been killed by drone strikes.
What particularly concerns counter terrorism officials is that many of al-Qa’ida’s younger leaders are much more familiar with life in the West than their predecessors.
Al-Shukrijumah was born in Saudi Arabia but grew up in Florida and has US citizenship. His friends remember him as a quiet asthmatic who was tech-savvy and spent increasing amounts of his time overseas. Investigators believe he trained at al-Qa’ida run camps in Afghanistan before 11 September as was picked by Khaled Shaikh Muhammad, al-Qa’ida’s number three before his capture in 2003, to become the next generation of street smart terror leaders.
Two key Americans with similar Islamist career paths to al-Shukrijumah include Adam Yahiye Gadahn, a Jewish-born covert to Islam who has pioneered al-Qa’ida slick media wing, and Omar Hammami, a 25-year-old Alabaman who is now a senior figure within the al-Qa’ida linked Somalian militia al-Shabaab.
Meanwhile Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born imam, has become one of the most charismatic English preachers of extremist dogma online and is regarded as the spiritual leader of Yemen’s growing al-Qa’ida network.
Before his retirement in 2005, Pasquale “Pat” D’Amuro was the FBI’s senior counter terrorism official and a veteran tracker of al-Qa’ida lieutenants. He believes the new crop of al-Qa’ida operatives pose particularly significant threats because of their intimate knowledge of the West.
“What gives you concern – and you have the same problem in the UK – is that we have citizens who affiliate with known terrorist organisations,” he told The Independent. “Their ability to train or come in and out of the country is a problem. We know al-Qa’ida has been trying to identify individuals that they think they can get in and out of the United States to carry out terrorist attacks. That’s why these individuals are even more threatening."Reuse content