The Terrorist Next Door

The U.S. says a former Anaheim resident is trying to kill us all

Photo by AP/Wide WorldKhalil Deek is either one of the world's most dangerous men —a close friend of terrorist financier Osama bin Laden—or a naive computer geek whose religious beliefs and social connections led overzealous authorities to mistake him for an Islamic terrorist.

Only this much seems certain about Deek, an erstwhile computer engineer who used to live in Orange County: on Dec. 11, 1999, Pakistani police arrested him at his home in Peshawar and put him on an airplane to Amman, Jordan. They were acting on orders from Jordanian King Abdullah II, whose government had information tying Deek to several men just arrested for their alleged role in a plot to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists in that country over the New Year's holiday.

One of the group's alleged bombing targets was Amman's Radisson Hotel. Allegedly masterminded by Osama bin Laden, the attack never materialized, and as it turned out, not a single terrorist incident occurred on Dec. 31, 1999.

A few days after he was arrested and extradited to Jordan, Deek—the only U.S. citizen arrested in the case—and more than a dozen other defendants were indicted in a Jordanian courtroom.

Judging by the international media's response to the story, the evidence proving Deek's terrorist connections is solid. Pakistani authorities found "bomb-making instructions" on his computer; they say he met on several occasions with the infamous bin Laden at the latter man's hideout across the border in Afghanistan. According to numerous newspaper accounts, moreover, Deek was until the time of his arrest a "top deputy" for bin Laden's terrorist network.

Yet seven months after his arrest, Jordanian and U.S. authorities now say Deek actually served as a sinister travel agent for bin Laden's group. And the "evidence" against him increasingly seems to revolve around what police found on his computer in Peshawar: the radical Islamic book Encyclopedia Jihad, a sort of Muslim Anarchist's Cookbook that is widely and publicly available in the Middle East and in Pakistan.

From his jail cell in Jordan, Deek maintains his innocence and has even reportedly helped his captors decipher computer disks that contain evidence relating to bin Laden's would-be New Year's Eve attack. To make matters more confusing, the Jordanian government in March transferred Deek from a maximum-security prison in Amman to a low-security jail—a strange place to put a dangerous terrorist. The Jordanian government won't explain the transfer, except to insist that Deek is still officially under investigation.

Neither the FBI nor the Jordanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., would comment for this story. But in its May 2000 annual report, the U.S. State Department's office of counterterrorism cited Deek's extradition to Jordan as evidence of Pakistan's cooperation in fighting terrorism. The State Department refused to comment on Deek's situation, except for one official who asked not to be identified by name: "We cooperate closely with the government of Jordan, and we strongly applauded the way they handled this," he said.

On a crowded street just a few blocks north of the rusting railroad tracks that bisect Anaheim from east to west is the beige, one-story apartment building where Khalil Deek used to live. On a recent afternoon, the building was empty except for a young girl's banana-seat bicycle, which sat abandoned in the corner of the building's concrete courtyard. Outside on the sidewalk, children played under the gaze of watchful mothers.

Deek's brother, Tawfiq, a chemical engineer who works in Brea, still lives in the building with his wife, Malak, in a modest apartment on the first floor. In recent interviews, both Tawfiq and Malak told the Weekly that Deek is not the man Jordanian and U.S. officials say he is. They tell a life story of someone who doesn't seem to fit the stereotype of a radical Islamic terrorist.

According to his family, Deek was born 42 years ago in a small Palestinian village in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank. After finishing high school in 1977, Deek studied chemical engineering at Egypt's Aswan University and traveled to Rome, where he attended a small computer school. After returning to Jordan, Deek found a job with a French company helping to design walls for Alia Airport in Jordan, which was then under construction.

Perhaps inspired by that work, Deek moved in 1980 to Greeley, Colorado, to pursue a commercial pilot's license. When he ran out of money before he could finish the program, Deek apparently settled for a private pilot's license and moved to Denton, Texas, where a Palestinian friend ran a liquor store. In Texas, Deek's interest in airplanes waned in favor of computers. Once again, he attended computer classes. To make ends meet, he found work as a pizza-delivery man.

Deek married and shortly after, in 1985, divorced. A year later, just after finishing computer school, Deek moved to Anaheim. His Palestinian friend had already moved here, and Deek followed him, finding work as a computer programmer. Two years later, Tawfiq emigrated to the United States and became Khalil's next-door neighbor. The two lived together for the next several years.

In 1991, Khalil became a U.S. citizen. Armed with his new passport, he visited his relatives in Palestine for the first time in more than a decade. According to his brother, it was the first time he had left the United States since 1980. Five years later, Deek returned, intending to settle down in the Middle East. But because Khalil had overstayed his six-year exit visa and had become a U.S. citizen, the Israeli government refused to allow him to become a permanent resident of Palestine. Deek moved on to Jordan before settling in Pakistan, where by all accounts he opened a computer school, remarried and had two daughters.

Next Page »