In 2006, a high priority for the FBI was tracking the owner of a blog called Inshallahshaheed who frequently posted commentary in support of Muslim extremist groups and violent jihad.
The FBI feared that both the shifting tone of the blog entries and the dozens of videos the blogger posted to YouTube depicting terrorist operations indicated that he was planning an attack against the US, or intended to join up with militants in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the US military.
Five years later, that blogger, Samir Khan, was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen alongside radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who the Obama administration had secretly targeted for death, setting off a fierce debate over executive power. Both men were affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — and both men were US citizens.
"Together, Aulaqi [Awlaki] and Khan have drawn on their understanding of the United States to craft a radicalizing message tailored to American Muslims," Lauren O'Brien, an intelligence analyst in the FBI's counterintelligence division, wrote in September 2011, the month the two men were killed.
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VICE News has exclusively obtained many of Khan's FBI's files [pdf below] in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed not long after his death. It is extremely rare for files on accused terrorists to be released by the government; historically, they have remained classified. In a letter accompanying the documents, the FBI said more than 250 pages of records were withheld on national security grounds and because they would reveal the identity of confidential sources, law enforcement investigative techniques and pertain to ongoing investigations into terrorism. The FBI said other documents were referred to separate government agencies (believed to be the CIA and Department of Defense) for review. The bureau said in its letter it expects to release another batch of documents on Khan at a later time.
The documents indicate that the FBI began its probe of Khan based entirely on what the bureau referred to as "jihadist" blog posts to Inshallahshaheed, an Arabic phrase that means "Martyr, God willing." The files do not reveal any active plot by Khan against the US or its interests overseas.
"Samir Khan continues to post violent jihadi blogs on the Internet despite several attempts to silence him," one 2007 FBI file states. "This continual resurgence of his website indicate he is being assisted and or directed by an unknown entity…. Khan clearly is using the Internet, possibly at the direction of the GIMF [Al Qaeda propaganda group Global Islamic Media Front], to radicalize his readers, and potentially dispatch or direct others."
The FBI files indicate that the bureau believed it was Awlaki, identified by name in jihadi articles included in the files, who inspired and directed Khan.
The hundreds of pages of redacted FBI documents from 2006 through 2010 reveal the genesis of the FBI's probe into Khan, provide a window into how terrorists use the internet to attract recruits, and reveal how the FBI may currently be tracking American citizens sympathetic to the Islamic State. In fact, Khan's FBI files reference the Islamic State — specifically his use of the Islamic State of Iraq flag as an avatar — indicating that the bureau had been collecting intelligence on the group for years.
Khan's blog posts suggested he was interested in waging violent jihad against the US, and noted his desire to establish an Islamic caliphate.
According to the files, some of which are titled "Sunni Extremists" and were generated by numerous field offices and divisions within the agency, the FBI first learned of Khan in November 2006, when the then 20-year-old started posting about his support for an Islamic organization linked to terrorism and, according to the documents, advocated for the beheading of journalists. Two months later, the FBI had opened a file on Khan and was actively collecting information about him.
Michael German, a former FBI agent whose work at the bureau included infiltrating white supremacist groups, told VICE News that the files on Khan are "interesting," but because of the redactions, it's difficult to know what information the FBI had on Khan beyond his blog posts. German said that certain information contained in the files "suggests it was more than just [Khan's] blog posts" that concerned the bureau, but it's "still not enough to get a clear picture of why the FBI was interested" in Khan.
The files "give us an idea of the [intelligence collection capabilities] the FBI has at its fingertips," said German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice working on intelligence reform. "They had access to his wage and employment records. It's certainly interesting in terms of shedding light on the type of information the FBI can obtain. It raises more questions than answers."
The records show that the FBI found out Khan had worked at Finish Line, a sporting goods store, in 2004; at One-Stop Cellular and Spherion Atlantic, a temp agency, in 2006; and at a Super 8 Motel in 2007. "He previously applied to be a baggage handler for US Airlines. It does not appear that he got the job," according to the files.
The FBI's Field Intelligence Group (FIG), which identifies emerging threats, "discovered a WEBLOG" maintained by Khan during "open source research in support of [redacted]," which identified his interest in "the Tanzeem-e-Islami-affiliated, US-based organization, Islamic Organization of North America (IONA), and in jihad." (Tanzeem-e-Islami is a radical Muslim group based in Pakistan.)
Khan started blogging about jihad, according to the files, in 2004, the year he moved with his family to Charlotte, North Carolina from New York City. But he didn't appear to be very tech savvy.
"Khan's first WEBLOG was created on xanga.com. He eventually shut down this WEBLOG due to errors he created in the script that caused it to crash repeatedly," states a May 16, 2007 file on Khan. "After shutting down his WEBLOG on xanga.com, Samir Zafar Khan opened a new WEBLOG on wordpress.com and registered the WEBLOG as inshallahshaheed.wordpress.com."
Khan's blog posts suggested he was interested in waging violent jihad against the US, and noted his desire to establish an Islamic caliphate. But his articles were not terribly specific in identifying any targets. For example in June 2006, he wrote, "My furthest goals are beyond what most individuals look forward to and that is between myself and Allah 'Azza wa Jall.'"
The FBI disagreed.
"The FIG believes that his initial comment about his goals being beyond those of most individuals and the responses to that statement by readers of his WEBLOG indicate that mentally he has moved further towards believing that an act of violent jihad and becoming a martyr would raise him to the highest levels of heaven," the FBI files state. "In support of this assessment, FBI New York source reporting from October 2006 [redacted] reveals [redacted]."
The FBI became concerned when a commenter wrote to Khan and expressed interest in joining the "caravan."
"[Redacted] appears to be expressing his desire to join the fighting abroad against the west in the global war on terrorism (GWOT), possibly in Iraq and Afghanistan. His reference of 'I want to join the caravan…' is a likely reference to the phrase, 'The caravan of martyrs' coined in the 1980s by the now deceased Sheikh Abdullah Azzam," the files state. Azzam was Osama bin Laden's mentor. "The phrase 'The caravan of martyrs' is still used to describe the Mujahideen who die in battle."
The FBI's Charlotte field office urged headquarters to manage the case on Khan, but headquarters balked, stating that there was not enough information to prove Khan had direct ties to terrorist groups. So the Charlotte field office continued to build its case. The Secret Service, however, made contact with Khan after he wrote a blog post deemed to be threatening toward President George W. Bush. FBI agents also later interviewed members of Khan's family; they told the agents that they took their son to see a psychiatrist, who said Khan's posts about violent jihad were simply a sign of teenage rebellion.
The files indicate that the FBI began to suspect Khan was more than just a radical blogger, and that he was actively facilitating the travel of would-be jihadists. Khan told a jihadist commenter that he understood "completely" and offered him some advice [all sic]:
Know that the prophet (s) was absolutely correct when he said Paradise lies under the shade of the sword. Prepare yourself physically by working out fe Sebeelillah; so work harder than the Kafireen [non believer] who train to kill al Muslimeem. Please email me akhee and we can discuss some things, insAllah. My email is the hotmail one.
The FBI believed that Khan's response to the commenter was an indication that he had become increasingly frustrated with living in the United States, and that he was gearing up to "join in combat against the United States and its allies. "Investigation has also indicated Khan has had contact with alleged associates of Al Qaeda and subjects of other ongoing investigations," the files say. "Additionally, unconfirmed source reporting indicates Khan's desire to martyr himself."
Khan's "timely" access to "media releases of videos and speeches of known terrorists and groups" from "international sources" led the bureau to conclude that he had been planning an operation. But of greater concern to the agency at the time, according to the files, was the "content of the conversation that appears to have been intended for the pseudo privacy of Samir Zafar Khan's hotmail account."
"Based on the content of the discussion thread presented above, the FIG has concerns that Samir Zafar Khan is using his email accounts to provide advise [sic], recruit, or facilitate the travel of potential jihadist to the battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan," the FBI files say.
The FBI was also concerned about another extremist blogger — "an unidentified male who runs his WEBLOG on blogspot.com entitled [redacted]" — who had corresponded with Khan in September 2005.
An FBI file from 2007 said agents identify the blogger, based on comments posted on his blog, as a "30 year old male, black-Muslim convert living in the Southern United States" who "identifies his occupation as 'Mujahid in training.'" The FBI was worried the unnamed blogger's "rhetoric, especially concerning conducting violent jihad in the United States, could encourage Samir Zafar Khan of his path of escalation to actually conduct a terrorist act in the United States."
* * *
In late 2007, Khan was placed under surveillance and became the subject of a formal investigation by the FBI and Justice Department. The FBI was monitoring Khan so closely that the bureau obtained a menu with Khan's handwriting and fingerprints that it planned to use as evidence if he was indicted. The agency also opened sub files on Khan that were devoted to articles written about him, his finances, surveillance of him, and "technical matters." There was one specifically for material meant for a potential Grand Jury.
One FBI file, identified as an "Internet activity report" from the Counterterrorism/Public Access Center, forwarded to the Charlotte field office, says Khan was "outed" by the New York Times and notes that the newspaper was asked not to identify him. A November 7, 2007 file from an FBI analyst in Washington, DC whose name is redacted to an agent in Charlotte states:
This is concerning 21 year old Samir Khan who is known to you. At least I am pretty sure he is known to the Charlotte, NC office. He was 'outted' [sic] by the New York Times a few weeks ago. I know they were asked not to out him but they did anyway. He lives in Charlotte, NC where he keeps a Blog providing media and a place of communication to his jihadi buddies. He has been heavily involved in assisting The Global Islamic Media Front. We have worked very hard to get his web sites shut down but to no avail. He pops up again in another spot.
The New York Times story that the analyst mentions was the first news report written about Khan. It was published on October 15, 2007 and examined his online preachings in the context of how radical jihadists use the Internet to spread their message.
The Washington, DC analyst recommended that the agent in Charlotte read a post contained on an anti-jihad blog called the Jawa Report:
You will find more information that is new it will all be laid out for you by [redacted]. Please read the comments section if you need to. I am in great hopes you will lock him up once and for all. He is a traitor. He gives aid and comfort to the stated enemies of our government. He is more than just a propagandist as far as I am concerned.
Additionally, the FBI files say the agency relied on confidential informants to gather intelligence on Khan and his movements, and to build a terrorism case against him. Some of the files are tagged "Muslim Community Outreach," which indicates the FBI cultivated informants in the Muslim community in Charlotte. Civil liberties groups have criticized the FBI's so-called Muslim Community Outreach efforts, arguing that they amount to an intelligence gathering program.
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"A source, who has not agreed to testify and who has provided verified and reliable information in the past, currently operates online with FBI tasking. On 10/09/2007, source reported the following information: On 10/05/2007, user inshallahshaheed posted, on the online blog known as inshallahshaheed, a posting titled, 'Regarding those who say, "And you cannot make Jihaad [sic] unless if you have a separate state,"'" an October 11, 2007 counterterrorism file from the Charlotte field office says.
Khan managed to travel to Yemen in 2009. Once there, he became the editor of al Qaeda's glossy English-language magazine, INSPIRE. It included articles like "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," which reportedly inspired the Boston Marathon bombers. How Khan was able to leave the US and travel to Yemen despite the scrutiny he was under is unexplained in the files.
* * *
In May and June of 2010, according to FBI property files, the bureau acquired a Maxtor 200 gigabyte hard drive containing the contents of Khan's blog and the contents of Khan's iPhone.
The FBI kept its lawyers in the loop on these developments. A file dated January 25, 2007 appears to show that the FBI obtained a warrant from a secret surveillance court that authorized a wiretap on Khan's phone and the seizing of his emails. An October 2007 file sent to deputy general counsel Julie Thomas from FBI special agent Nathan Thomas Gray of the Charlotte field office says the National Security Law Branch "requested to record the appropriate information needed to fulfill the Congressional reporting requirements for the [redacted]."
'Samir Khan did not socialize with other mosque attendees… Samir Khan told all of the attendees they were "wussies" for not fighting jihad overseas.'
The files show that the FBI also tracked Khan's vehicle movement, suggesting that the bureau either placed a GPS tracker on his Honda Civic or that it obtained information about his whereabouts from his E-ZPass.
By 2007, the FBI's North Carolina Joint Terrorism Task Force had briefed a federal prosecutor about Khan's blog posts and noted that he may have been providing material support for terrorism in violation of US laws.
Khan's radical views apparently alienated nearly everyone at his local mosque, the FBI files said, and on one occasion an individual whose identity was redacted took Khan to a shooting range in 2005 to "assess whether his shooting skills matched his rhetoric." The individual, whom the FBI interviewed, could not recall whether it did.
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"During Friday prayer, Samir Khan would leave the masjid [mosque] immediately after prayer ended," says a November 8, 2007 summary. "Samir Khan did not socialize with other masjid attendees… Samir Khan told all of the masjid attendees they were 'wussies' for not fighting jihad overseas."
The State Department made a condolence call to Khan's family after he was killed in the 2011 drone strike. Khan was reportedly not a target, and was instead collateral damage because he was traveling with Awlaki, the intended target.
"It was a pretty quick call," Khan family spokesman Jibril Hough told Fox News at the time. "They apologized to the family for not reaching out and contacting them sooner."
Neither Jibril nor members of the Khan family responded to VICE News' requests for comment.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold