The confirmation by U.S. officials on October 5 that Adnan El-Shukrijumah, a high-ranking al-Qaeda leader, had attempted to obtain radioactive material for the production and smuggling of a ‘dirty bomb’ into the United States, focused media attention on the ongoing pursuit of this al-Qaeda leader in Central America. Shukrijumah, 29 years old and believed to be of Yemeni nationality, though brought up in Saudi Arabia, was described by U.S. attorney-general John Ashcroft as “a clear and present danger to the U.S. and a major threat to homeland security”.
His CV certainly supports the title. Worshipping at the same mosque in South Florida as José Padilla, who is at present held as an enemy combatant in a plot to detonate a dirty bomb, his al-Qaeda qualifications are impeccable. According to information gleaned from the interrogation of al-Qaeda organizer Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Shukrijumah operates as a key ‘fixer’ and was himself heavily involved in the hijacking of aircraft used on September 11 2001. His nickname from his time in Florida is Ja’far al-Tayyar, (Ja’far the Pilot). He is said to have attended the March 2004 ‘terrorist summit’ held in Waziristan, north Pakistan, and believed to have directed surveillance efforts in the financial districts in New York, which prompted this summer’s raising of terror alert levels in New York, Washington and Newark.
Shukrijumah’s connections with radioactive material is not fresh news. Early last year he was identified as having been present at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which is the site of a 5,000-watt research reactor. The university has since made strenuous efforts to dispel persistent rumors of missing nuclear material, amounting to some ‘82 or 86 kilos’ [180 or 189 pounds], or of missing irradiated material taken either from the reactor itself, or from stores at other areas of the campus such as the hospital.
With or without this material, his status as one of the few top-ranking al-Qaeda members still at large is exercising security forces across Central America. Early this year Shukrijumah was spotted in Guyana, then at an internet café in May in Honduras, where he was identified during surveillance of a meeting of Mara Salvatrucha gang leaders in the capital Tegucigalpa. These are a violent Salvadorean crime syndicate originating in Los Angeles and specializing in the smuggling of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border. The implication of this is that Shukrijumah may be negotiating a deal to infiltrate himself, and perhaps other al-Qaeda members, into the United States. The latest sighting of Shukrijumah was in August in the Sonoro province of northern Mexico.
The hunt for Shukrijumah casts light on the growing evidence of Islamist activists entering the United States via Mexico, exploiting lax immigration rules which were originally framed to provide practical measures for dealing with the huge numbers of illegal entrants from the country, in particular the practice of turning loose ‘OTMs’ (‘other than Mexicans’), rather than returning them to Mexico. Five Arabs were arrested on the border last October, and this summer there have been more reports of encounters with ‘dozens’ of men of Middle Eastern appearance attempting to enter the United States from Mexico, although some doubt has since been cast on this.
Shukrijumah fits the bill of what investigators suspect is al-Qaeda’s strategy of employing youthful members, bearing bona fide U.S., Canadian or Western European passports, or students who have spent enough time in the target country to emerge with in-depth knowledge of the land and its culture, and a native command of the language. Conversely, the phantom-like presence of Shukrijumah in Central America, and inability to date to pin him down, highlight the opportunities provided by the present security disarray in the region, due to the lack of significant co-ordination in intelligence and enforcement.
If Shukrijumah has indeed succeeded in linking up with criminal syndicates such as the Mara Salvatrucha gang, it is a sobering thought. The gang has some form of presence in virtually every Hispanic community across the United States, and can thus offer al-Qaeda unparalleled infiltration into any city in the country.