As a teenager in the mid-1990s, he moved with his parents to the United States from Pakistan. The family sought and received political asylum. They settled in Baltimore County and operated a gas station. The boy attended Owings Mills High School. His cricket skills helped him excel at baseball, the quintessential American game.
"He always seemed like such a nice young man," said the chair of the English department.
The nice young man graduated in 1999.
He picked up a job as a data administrator with the Maryland Office of Planning. By 2001, he was earning $70,000 a year with a data systems company in Northern Virginia. That nice salary made him the top earner in his family.
That's some of what we know.
That, and this:
Majid Khan is a "high-value detainee" at the prison at Guantanamo Bay that President Obama promised five years ago — and again last week — to close.
Khan has been there for at least seven years. He has never seen his daughter; she was born after Pakistani authorities grabbed Khan and turned him over to the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA kept him in secret locations for three years before moving him to Guantanamo in 2006.
I don't know if you were expecting that kind of turn in the story, but there it is.
The nice young man from Owings Mills, who was making $70,000 a year at the age of 21, without even attending college, became associated with al-Qaida within a few months of the 9/11 attacks. He ended up taking a series of orders from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the attacks, and had a role in the deadly 2003 bombing of a hotel in Indonesia and a plot to kill the president of Pakistan.
We know this from the statement presented by military prosecutors last year, when Khan pleaded guilty to murder, espionage and conspiracy.
The facts I've related come from court records and interviews, and the excellent work of Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown.
I bring this up today because of Obama's new pledge to close Guantanamo, because I wondered if Khan had been taking part in the hunger strike there — he's not, his lawyer says — and because of all the analysis of the brothers Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers. Just as friends of the younger brother scratch their heads at his alleged involvement in the deadly Boylston Street bombings, we scratch a bit at the story of Khan and wonder why he made such a severe and rapid turn.
You certainly wouldn't call Khan a "loser," as Uncle Ruslan famously said of his Boston nephews.
You look at the trajectory of Khan's life and wonder what part of the American dream wasn't working for him. I know that "American dream" business sounds corny to some, even anachronistic, as we come out of a protracted recession. But it's still what we sell here.
Land of freedom. Land of opportunity. A chance to get an education — for free through high school, even to immigrants in the country illegally — and to make real money and reach the middle class.
A young man with upward mobility and digital-age skills shouldn't be carrying money to al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan and Thailand so they can kill innocent people. That's an affront to human decency, not to mention our Western, capitalist views. It doesn't make sense.
Here's something else we know about Khan:
He has agreed to "join team America," as one of his attorneys put it, and cooperate with investigators at Guantanamo for the next three years, then serve at least 15 more. His cooperation will be evaluated before final sentencing, in February 2016.
"He's remorseful. He wishes he had never been involved with al-Qaida," Lt. Col. John Jackson, who served on Khan's defense team, said last year.
Both Jackson and Wells Dixon, another Khan attorney, said their client had been tortured while in custody, though he forfeited his right to sue the government for it. "He made a decision to accept responsibility for his actions," said Jackson, "to try and achieve some measure of redemption in his life."
"He's committed to putting the mistakes of his past behind him," Dixon said last week. "He very much regrets the things he did and recognizes that he ruined a good part of his life."
But why? So far there's not much in the public record to explain how the nice young man from Owings Mills became so radicalized. His family declined to be interviewed for this column.
"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 told The Sun. He said we'll get the story in three years, at Khan's final sentencing.
Good. I'll mark the calendar for "Majid Khan explanation," February 2016.
One last thing: If Khan is cooperating with authorities, why keep him in Guantanamo? He could do the same at a federal prison stateside, and he might even get a visit with the daughter he's never seen.