A Terrorist Tool?

On Sept. 11, 2001, my sister was in her office at the U.S. State Department annex across the street from the Pentagon. My stepfather was at his desk just two blocks south of the White House. My then-girlfriend (we're married now) was covering Fashion Week in Manhattan.

It wasn't until I knew they were okay that I started to worry about my relationship with someone I'd never met: Khalil Deek.

I first wrote about Deek on July 14, 2000. At the time, the U.S. citizen and former Anaheim resident was sitting in a Jordanian prison cell, his travel arrangements handled by the Pakistani police who had arrested him at his home in Peshawar. Deek and more than a dozen other suspects had been rounded up for their alleged role in a so-called Millennium Eve Plot to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists in Jordan on Dec. 31, 1999.

My interest in him stemmed from the fact that his family—who still lived in Anaheim—insisted he was just an outgoing computer geek who would never knowingly aid terrorists. The more I looked at the charges against him, the less he looked like a terrorist. In Anaheim, Deek had been involved with the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), which raised money for orphanages in Beirut and the occupied territories. Because Hamas ran some of those orphanages, the IAP was often denounced as a front for Hamas—in that case, Israel could be considered a front for Hamas since it once funded Hamas social programs as a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization.

In Pakistan, Deek had been arrested with a computer copy of Encyclopedia Jihad, a widely published terrorist manual somewhat akin to an Islamic Anarchist Cookbook. Press reports about Deek alternatively claimed that he was a U.S. Army veteran, an Arab volunteer in the Afghan mujahideen, and the owner of a computer store in Pakistan. But when I interviewed family members in Anaheim, they told me Deek had never served in the military of any country and had certainly never fought in Afghanistan.

In fact, they claimed, he had no interest in religion or politics until a few years earlier. Instead, they offered a portrait of a mundane upbringing—at least one that seemed mundane until Al Qaeda terrorists crashed several planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon building. Deek, they claimed, had first come to the U.S. in 1980. He arrived in Greeley, Colorado, to attend flight school. His goal was to become a commercial pilot.

I'd written all that long before Sept. 11. Suddenly, on about Sept. 12, Deek's résumé seemed less exculpatory than inflammatory.

After my first article appeared, I wrote a follow-up story noting that Deek had begun a hunger strike behind bars. Through his lawyer, he claimed he had told authorities everything he knew about his co-defendants and couldn't understand why he was still being held. On May 31, 2000, after Jordanian police dropped all charges against Deek and released him, I penned a self-congratulatory piece, "Freedom, We Think."

My next story about Deek ran a week after 9/11. I wrote about how his brother Tawfiq, still living in Anaheim, was worried about his family's safety. According to Tawfiq, he hadn't heard from Khalil in months. He knew only that Khalil had flown back to Pakistan and was trying to find his wife and two kids so he could bring them back to Orange County. Deek's last known location was the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, where he turned up four months before 9/11, trying to get visas for his family members. According to Tawfiq, his brother told him the embassy staff said the earliest appointment he could make was in two weeks. Deek never kept the appointment.

Since that article appeared, Deek's name has been cited as a known terrorist in numerous newspaper reports. Even Richard Clarke, the respected terrorism expert and Bush critic, calls Deek a terrorist in his book Against All Enemies. In May 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller revealed the identities of seven suspected terrorists who were allegedly planning a stateside attack. One was a heavy metal music fan who grew up on a Riverside goat farm and changed his name to Adam Yahiye Gadahn.

Local Muslims recalled Gadahn as a former volunteer at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, the county's largest mosque. He was expelled from the mosque in 1997 after he began espousing radical views and punched out then-director Haitham Bundakji. The mosque is also where Gadahn allegedly became friends with Khalil Deek. On Oct. 27, 2004, ABC announced it had a tape featuring a masked terrorist speaking Arabic with an American accent. The man, who identifies himself as "Assam the American," gleefully predicts an imminent terrorist strike on U.S. soil that will dwarf 9/11.

ABC speculated that the masked man was Gadahn, who is still unaccounted for and remains on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists. Deek, it's worth noting, has not made the list. Despite the media's repeated assertions that he's a terrorist—and one journalist's repeated assertions that he probably isn't—Deek has never been officially named on any U.S. government terrorist list. And he's still missing.

 
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