A young American who edited al Qaeda's English-language magazine, and had urged Muslims to mount deadly attacks on U.S. targets, was killed in the same CIA drone strike that eliminated Anwar Awlaki in Yemen Friday, U.S. officials said.
Khan, 25, was the Saudi-born, New York-raised editor behind "Inspire" magazine, the English language online publication of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Khan had become a rising figure in jihadist propaganda and an "aspiring" Awlaki, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
But while Awlaki relied on sermons to recruit jihadis, Khan used sarcasm and idiomatic English in an attempt to appeal to Western youth. As Khan himself has said, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I [am] Al Qaeda to the core." He titled a rebuke of toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak "A Cold Diss." Khan's ability to use American vernacular, like a graphic depicting graffiti that reads, "Jihad 4 Eva," had prompted concerns that young Muslims with an interest in jihad and al Qaeda would be drawn to a voice similar to their own.
"He does appear to be increasingly involved with operational activities [of Al Qaeda]", a U.S. official told ABC News in 2010.
British officials found copies of "Inspire" in the apartments of several suspects arrested and charged in connection to a bomb plot in the U.K. Officials said the suspects were avid followers of both the magazine and Awlaki.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American college student charged with plotting an attack on a Christmas lighting event in Portland, Oregon, last year, was in contact with Khan, and wrote articles for him, authorities say.
Mohamud, who was arrested in an FBI sting, is accused of attempting to detonate what he believed to be a car bomb in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square via cellphone during the annual lighting of the Christmas tree, which had drawn a crowd of thousands. The FBI affidavit alleges that Mohamud told FBI agents that he had written four articles since 2009 for two different on-line jihadist magazines edited and distributed by Samir Khan.
Khan had edited seven separate issues of "Inspire" since launching the publication in 2010, penning such articles as "How To Build A Bomb In the Kitchen of Your Mom." Inspire carried sermons by Awlaki and other jihadi figures, boasted about the failed "printer bomb" cargo plane plot, and paid tribute to Osama bin Laden before and after his death. It outlined various techniques for jihadis to attack Americans with U.S. borders, including using pick-up trucks to mow down pedestrians, how to blow up buildings with natural gas, and how to use an AK-47 automatic rifle. The magazines grew in graphic sophistication with each issue, and Khan seemed to write, edit or design the majority of the content.
In the latest issue, which expressed frustration with Iran for spreading conspiracy theories about 9/11 instead of giving credit to al Qaeda, the editor-in-chief called himself "Yahya Ibrahim," but U.S. officials suspect that's just a pseudonym for Khan.
Khan was killed Friday morning by a CIA drone strike along with Awlaki and two other individuals in Yemen. The missiles hit a vehicle in which they were riding.
"I always felt like I was going to get this call," said Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, North Carolina, who said he had tried to steer Khan away from extremism.
"I set up two interventions in my home," Hough told ABC affiliate WSOC in Charlotte, "and we tried to take him by the hand [and say], 'Look you're going down the wrong path.'" Hough said Khan's parents had distanced themselves from their son's radical views.
Khan was born in Saudi Arabia and raised from the age of seven in Queens, New York. He was a normal city teenager who listened to hip hop and wore baggy clothing.
Even before his family relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina in 2004, however, Khan had begun to take an interest in Islam. He ditched his baggy pants for jalabiyas, the long white robes traditionally favored by Saudis. He joined two Islamic groups, but neither espoused violence.
But with the move south, Khan took a turn towards radicalism. In 2004, after watching online videos of suicide bombers blowing themselves up at American military checkpoints in Iraq, Khan began to openly support Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda and to express that support on-line.
In 2007, shortly after Osama bin Laden released a communiqué, the New York Times reported that Khan, who had launched a blog called "A Martyr, God Willing" in Arabic, praised the al Qaeda leader, and beseeching Americans to "take his message with great seriousness."
In one of his only interviews, Khan told the New York Times that his favorite online video showed a suicide bomber striking a US base in Iraq.
"It was something that brought great happiness to me," Khan said.
Khan spent years in his parents' Charlotte basement blogging, posting al Qaeda messages, and becoming increasingly radicalized by the war in Iraq. His blog's popularity rose as his rhetoric became more extreme.
In 2009, he started a precursor to Inspire called Jihad Recollections, saying, "We have decided to take it upon ourselves to produce the first jihadi magazine in English." In the third issue, amidst calls for jihad and attacks against non-Muslims, Khan devoted space to a gushing review of a product dear to the hearts of American jihadis and infidels alike, Apple's iPhone 3. According to Khan, iPhone was "quickly becoming a standard as opposed to just another phone. With over 35,000 applications available, it becomes a joke when we hear about the so-called 'iPhone killers'."
According to Oren Segal, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League who has followed Khan's online rhetoric since 2004, Khan left the U.S. for Yemen in October 2009, which is around the time the fourth and final issue of Jihad Recollections appeared. In Yemen, he launched "Inspire," and after his arrival in Yemen, say U.S. authorities, his on-line efforts had been in conjunction with AQAP.
Inspire's second edition, which was published before the October 2010 printer bomb attempt and included Khan's claim to be "Al Qaeda to the core," featured a photo of the Chicago skyline, which U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials think was a tip-off of the terror group's intention to address the bombs to Jewish targets in Chicago.
"He's a model of what Americans can do in the propaganda sphere," said Segal.
"He's what's next. His message resonates and appeals to Western audiences."