From Owings Mills High School to a cell at Guantanamo

A studious young man with an aptitude for computers, Majid Shoukat Khan was working as a database administrator in a high-rise office building in Tysons Corner, Va., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

After American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the western face of the Pentagon, the recent Owings Mill High School graduate watched from his office window as the smoke rose over the capital.

Osama bin Laden would claim credit for the attacks. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad would boast of planning them.

And within months, Khan — a Pakistani immigrant who took classes in English as a second language, used his cricket skills to excel at baseball and once dreamed of becoming a rapper — would join their cause.

Khan, now 32, pleaded guilty last week to murder, espionage and conspiracy for his role in the deadly 2003 bombing of a hotel in Indonesia and plots to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and blow up gas stations in the United States.

Khan remains at Guantanamo Bay, where he has been held since 2006. Family members in Baltimore County did not return messages last week, and no one came to the door Friday when a reporter visited family homes in Windsor Mill and Randallstown.

But the plea agreement released after his arraignment and statements over the years by Khan, his family and others provide details of his journey from Baltimore County, where he arrived as a teenager in 1996, worked at his family's gas station and earned good grades in high school, to Camp 7 at Guantanamo Bay, a detention center so secret that its location within the base is classified.

J. Wells Dixon, one of Khan's attorneys, said that "there is a story behind his actions" but that Khan will wait until his sentencing to tell it.

"Majid Khan didn't just wake up one day and decide that he was going to conspire with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and al-Qaida," Dixon, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, told The Baltimore Sun. "His involvement was the result of a series of events in his life and a series of decisions that he now regrets and wishes that he had never made."

In the decade since Sept. 11, several young men from the Baltimore area have been accused in terror plots.

Antonio Benjamin Martinez, 22, of Woodlawn pleaded guilty last month to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in the failed 2010 bombing of the Armed Forces Career Center in Catonsville.

Craig Benedict Baxam, 24, an Iraq War veteran from Laurel, was charged in January with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization after he tried to travel to Somalia to join the al-Qaida-affiliated rebel group al-Shabaab.

Mohammad Hassan Khalid, 18, who grew up in Ellicott City, was indicted last year on the same charge, after authorities said he worked with the Philadelphia woman known as "Jihad Jane" to recruit Americans and Europeans for a "violent jihad organization."

Alone among them, Khan succeeded in gaining an introduction to Mohammad, working with al-Qaida and participating in at least one successful attack.

At his arraignment, Khan acknowledged taking orders from Mohammad and said he delivered the al-Qaida funding that helped finance the suicide bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that left 11 dead and 81 injured.

He told military judge Col. James L. Pohl that he did not know that the $50,000 that he carried from Pakistan to Thailand in late 2002 would be used in the deadly hotel attack, which was carried out after he was captured in March 2003. But he said he knew it was al-Qaida money, and he delivered it voluntarily.

Khan also acknowledged conspiring with "Sheikh Osama bin Laden," but told Pohl he never met the al-Qaida leader.

Under a plea agreement, Khan will serve no more than 19 years for the crimes, provided he cooperates with the government in the prosecutions of other terror suspects at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

Under an unusual provision, his sentencing is to be delayed four years, at which point the tribunal will assess his cooperation.

The first allegations against Khan became public in late 2006, when he was one of 14 top terror suspects transferred from secret CIA prisons called "black sites" to Guantanamo Bay.

The group, which also included Mohammad, was designated "high-value targets" by President George W. Bush, and held in isolation from the other detainees at the base.

Khan, whose family had been granted political asylum in the United States, was the only one of the group with the legal authority to reside in the country.

Authorities said Khan had plotted to detonate the underground storage tanks of gas stations in the United States. At the time, family members rejected the idea of Khan as a terrorist.

"This is all crap — another lie from the Bush administration," his brother Ahmed Kahn told The Baltimore Sun in 2006. "He never thought of these things. It's so crazy."

Former teachers expressed shock.

"He never caused problems," said Margarita Ugarte-Caffyn, chairwoman of the English as a Second Language program at Owings Mills High School. "He always seemed like such a nice young man."

Family members described Kahn as a fun-loving brother; teachers remembered a good student.

He graduated from Owings Mills High School in 1999 and began work as a database administrator with the Maryland Office of Planning.

Also that year, Khan began attending conferences of Tablighi Jamaat, an international movement that seeks to bring Muslims closer to Islam.

Officially, the movement rejects violence, but it has been viewed by authorities as a potential recruiting ground for extremists.

Closer to home, Khan volunteered to teach database administration to youths at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a mosque in Woodlawn. He also helped to direct traffic during Friday prayers.

While only a high school graduate, he parlayed his facility with computers into a job with Electronic Data Systems in Tysons Corner in March 2001. A certification in database software enabled him to earn $70,000 a year, the highest-paying job in the family.

The following month, his mother died.

Dixon, his attorney, says there was no single event that set Khan on the path from Baltimore County to Pakistan to Guantanamo. But authorities say he was becoming radicalized.

A month after Sept. 11, he applied to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for permission to leave the country. He said he planned to travel to Dubai to get married and to Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage.

In fact, he traveled in January 2002 from Baltimore to Karachi, Pakistan, where a "close associate" identified in court papers as "Co-conspirator #1" introduced him as someone who could be "helpful" to al-Qaida.

There, Mohammad directed Khan in an operation that might have been a test of his loyalty. He ordered Khan to record a "martyr video," and then don an explosive vest and sit in a mosque to wait for Musharraf to arrive. Musharraf, then the president of Pakistan, never did.

While Khan was in Pakistan, he told Mohammad that has family owned gas stations in the United States.

The men discussed the plot to attack gas stations. Mohammad directed Khan to attend training on explosive device detonators and timers and, when he returned to the United States, to research the maintenance and operation of gas stations.

And Khan did get married, to a woman named Rabia Yaqoob — not in Dubai, but in Pakistan.

Khan returned to Baltimore alone in March 2002 and worked at a gas station operated by his family. At the same time, he attempted to recruit a "close associate" to work for Mohammad and al-Qaida, according to court papers.

In July, he was ordered back to Pakistan by Mohammad or another al-Qaida associate. He made the trip the following month, leaving Baltimore for the last time.

Earlier in 2002, prosecutors say, an al-Qaida affiliate in Thailand had discussed plans to bomb "soft targets" such as bars, cafes and nightclubs frequented by "Westerners" in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia.

Now that Khan was back in Pakistan, Mohammad found a role for him. He would take his wife to Thailand, where he would use their honeymoon as a cover for his actual purpose: delivering money that would help finance the attack in Indonesia. He was directed to conduct Internet research on tourist activities in Thailand so he could dress appropriately and pass unnoticed.

Khan and wife traveled to Bangkok on Dec. 24, 2002. There he gave the money to a member of the al-Qaida affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah.

Members of Jemaah Islamiyah carried the cash to Jakarta. They used it to rent a safe house with an enclosed garage and build a truck bomb.

On Aug. 5, 2003, a volunteer drove the truck into the front entrance of the J.W. Marriott hotel and detonated the bomb.

The members of Jemaah Islamiyah had chosen the hotel, prosecutors say, "because they believed it had a large American presence."

There is no indication in court papers that Khan's wife was aware of his role in the attack. She remains in Pakistan with the couple's daughter. Khan has never met the child.

At the time of the bombing, Khan was already in custody. Pakistani security forces had raided a family home in Karachi, capturing Khan, a brother, a sister-in-law and an infant niece. The sister-in-law and the niece were released after a week, the brother after a month.

Khan was turned over to the CIA, which would hold him for the next three years at a still-undisclosed location or locations.

Khan and his attorneys have said he was tortured while in CIA custody. Khan's father told a military panel in 2007 that "the Americans tortured him for eight hours at a time, tying him tightly in stressful positions in a small chair until his hands, feet and mind went numb."

"He was often hooded and had difficulty breathing," Ali Khan said in the statement. "They also beat him repeatedly, slapping him in the face, and deprived him of sleep."

Khan staged hunger strikes and twice attempted suicide — once cutting through an artery.

Under the plea agreement, Khan has forfeited his right to sue the government over his treatment.

"He was tortured," Dixon said. He said he could not provide details of Khan's allegations, which have been classified — but said the government should.

"That is something that the United States has to address," he said. "The United States has to accept responsibility for what happened to him, just the way that he accepted responsibility for his own actions."

Khan appeared fit and relaxed during his arraignment last week. Dressed in a suit and shorn of the thick beard with which he had been photographed, he was polite and respectful in his responses to Pohl.

He is scheduled to return before the tribunal in four years. Under the agreement, If he has given prosecutors his "full and truthful cooperation," he may be sentenced to no more than 15 more years.

Khan still could be detained as an enemy combatant after his sentence is complete, but would be allowed to petition for his release. Khan told the military judge he understood the terms.

"This agreement does not guarantee that I will be able to get free, even after I do my time," he said. "I'm taking a leap of faith here, sir. That's all I can do."

Dixon said Khan is "materially different" from the other high-value targets at Guantanamo Bay.

"He pleaded guilty to very serious offenses, but he wishes that he had never had any involvement with al-Qaida," Dixon said. "He has made a decision to cooperate with the United States government and to testify, if asked, against al-Qaida — at great risk to himself and his family."

Dixon described the plea "as a reflection of the genuineness of his remorse and his desire to see some measure of redemption."

"It is his hope that by pleading guilty, he will be released some day and he'll be able to see his father again, and see his daughter for the first time."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Majid Shoukat Khan

Born Feb. 28, 1980, in Pakistan

Married to Rabia Yaqoob, one child

Arrives with his family in Catonsville in 1996

Graduates from Owings Mills High School in 1999

Works as database administrator for Electronic Data Systems in Tysons Corner, Va.

Watches smoke rise over Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001

Travels to Pakistan in 2002, gains introduction with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad

Delivers al-Qaida money to finance 2003 bombing of J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta

Captured by Pakistani security forces in March 2003, held in secret CIA prison

Transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006

Tells military panel in 2007 he has been tortured

Pleads guilty to murder, espionage and conspiracy Feb. 29, 2012; agrees to testify against other terror suspects in exchange for 19-year sentence.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad