On May 16, 2009, a Charlotte, North Carolina police officer stopped Samir Khan's 2004 silver Honda Civic for running a stop sign. Khan told the officer, who gave him a traffic ticket, that he was headed to the grocery store. In his report, the officer noted that Khan "was nervous."
Khan's anxiety was understandable. He had been under FBI surveillance for several years for penning blog posts from his parents' home celebrating the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, proclaiming his loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and sharing his dreams of jihad.
Ten days earlier, the bureau linked him to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical preacher living in Yemen who US intelligence agencies claimed was the spiritual leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Like Khan, Awlaki was also a US citizen.
The FBI had planned a top-secret "case coordination meeting" for June 23, 2009 at the National Counterterrorism Center in MacLean, Virginia, where dozens of agents from FBI field offices from around the country who were working on the Khan and Awlaki cases would talk about how they planned to take down both men.
Intelligence the FBI collected from confidential informants and Khan's communications with "nefarious individuals" led the bureau to believe that he was preparing to travel overseas to engage in terrorism and kill Americans. On April 2, 2009, nearly a dozen FBI counterterrorism officials met to talk about "our strategy for the end-game" related to Khan.
"Let me know if this end-game plan is ok. It is a constant shifting of priorities," wrote the FBI official who was based out of the bureau's Charlotte field office.
Details of their "end-game" strategy are redacted.
Two years later, Khan and Awlaki were killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen. The Obama administration had publicly said that Khan wasn't the intended target.
The new details about the FBI's investigation into Khan is described in heavily redacted documents obtained by VICE News under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The 190 pages of records are the fifth installment in VICE News's ongoing series of reports about Khan, based on FBI documents, and the controversy surrounding the government's targeted killing of US citizens suspected of being members of al Qaeda. The bureau withheld more than 600 pages of documents from the latest cache, citing national security, privacy, law enforcement techniques and procedures and several other FOIA exemptions.
Although the documents make clear that the FBI was closing in on Khan in June 2009 — and that the bureau appeared to be ready to arrest and charge him with terrorism-related offenses — it is still unknown how the 24-year-old was able to slip out of the US and travel to Yemen without incident to join Awlaki four months later. The documents say the FBI maintained a surveillance log on Khan and noted that he frequented a local mosque in Charlotte and a restaurant in the city, Halal Grill & Sweets. The bureau also sent out weekly updates to top officials at the FBI and the Department of Justice on its investigation into Khan.
In Yemen, Khan became the editor of al Qaeda's slick English language magazine, Inspire, which included articles like "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" that would later serve as inspiration to the Boston Marathon bombers.
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The VICE News documentary 'Yemen: A Failed State'
The FBI documents highlight Khan's editorial skills and show that he had been working on an Inspire-like magazine prior to landing in Yemen. On April 7, 2009, the FBI sent an "urgent email" to its counterterrorism agents along with a report addressed to the director of the Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC), the FBI's "global watch and communications center," about a matter that would likely generate a "significant amount of media attention."
The report said that the FBI received an email from the office of Representative Sue Myrick, a Republican congresswoman from North Carolina, about a 70-page magazine (referred to as the "Khan magazine" in the FBI documents) that had come to the attention of her office.
"The magazine is entitled 'Jihad Recollections.' The 70-page magazine is a compilation of articles that are pro-jihad in nature, including, 'Four Practical Steps to Expand the Global Jihad' written by Usama bin Ladin, 'Have We Forgotten Who Is America' by [current al Qaeda leader] Ayman al Zawahiri and Nasir al-Fahd, and 'Principles of Guerilla Warfare' by Abu Stratigiyyah," a contributor to Khan's blog, the FBI report said.
It's unknown whether the FBI obtained additional evidence about Khan to support the bureau's belief that he would become operational. The hundreds of pages of documents VICE News obtained over the past year suggest that the FBI's main concern regarding Khan was his "increased religiosity," inflammatory blog posts and interviews he gave to publications such as the New York Times about embracing jihad.
Michael German, a former FBI agent whose work at the bureau included infiltrating white supremacist groups, previously told VICE News that the files on Khan "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.
Still, the new documents show that the FBI devoted enormous resources to the Khan case and had alerted the White House National Security Council and its legal attaches at US embassies — their locations are redacted — about the Khan investigation and the possibility that he may travel overseas to wage jihad.
Even Khan's parents, who have never been implicated in terrorist activity, were under scrutiny. The FBI documents say the bureau obtained financial information and "potential forfeiture values of assets about the Khan family…. Notable is the fact that the [$340,000] Khan residence was paid for in cash." Despite repeated attempts, VICE News has been unable to obtain a comment from the family.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold