Taint of terrorism shakes North Carolina university

Dahleen Glanton

GREENSBORO, N.C. (MCT) – North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University is an institution steeped in African-American history.

In 1960, four students from the university sat at a segregated lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro, sparking similar sit-ins across the South that became a trademark of the civil rights movement. This is the alma mater of distinguished graduates such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the late Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair.

But it is the institution’s most infamous alumnus – Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who reportedly has confessed to masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – that has brought the most publicity to the school recently.

In the five years since it was revealed that Mohammed earned an engineering degree from A&T, the college has been on a mission to redirect attention from its ties with him and restore its image as a first-rate engineering school and civil rights icon, according to school officials.

“We were shocked when we heard about him. We had no idea this person had come through our campus,” said Velma Speight-Buford, a member of North Carolina A&T’s board of trustees. “We regret that it happened but we can’t assume responsibility for everyone that comes through the university.”

FBI agents and the media descended on the city in 2003, talking to people who knew Mohammed during the 1980s, when he lived for 2 years among Middle Eastern teachers and students who had been recruited to bolster the academic standing of A&T’s engineering department.

Many in this city of more than 210,000 people thought the ordeal was behind them. But during a hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last month, Mohammed claimed responsibility for planning the Sept. 11 attacks as well as the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center and dozens of other plots that were never carried out, according to military officials.

Suddenly, North Carolina A&T and Greensboro’s tight-knit community of about 1,000 Muslims were again thrust into the limelight. And many Muslims fear the scrutiny will intensify anew.

“Many of us are Palestinians and we have to stay in Greensboro because we cannot go back,” said Babi Ali, president of Muslims for a Better North Carolina. “The most important thing we have learned is that you have to become an agent of change, a good citizen. But this is becoming more like a police state in this country.”

Like many of the Muslims who settled here, Mohammed received much of his exposure to American culture while attending A&T. He arrived in Greensboro in the summer of 1985, transferring from Chowan University, a tiny Baptist school in Murfreesboro, N.C. While attending Chowan, Muslim students were required to attend weekly Christian services and often were ridiculed by residents who did not understand their culture.

At A&T, Mohammed found a more accepting campus with more Middle Eastern students who for the most part created their own isolated communities.

It was during this time, according to some Muslim residents, that the students struggled to balance their strict religious beliefs with Western freedoms. On campus, most concentrated on studies and created their own entertainment, playing soccer on weekends rather than joining other “Aggies” at football games.

“When you are young, you want to experience American life but within the boundaries of Islamic laws,” said Ali, 45, who lived in Greensboro and knew Mohammed during his college years. “We wanted to have fun, so we found ways to enjoy ourselves without doing what was prohibited.”

The students gathered each Friday night at someone’s apartment and at the end of the meal they put on a show called “Friday Night Live,” a takeoff on “Saturday Night Live.” Mohammed, Ali said, was often in charge of putting together the comedy routines.

“Here is this man who used to be very spiritual. The only unique thing about him was that he had a sense of humor,” said Ali. “He was the star. He created plays, the Islamic way. And people would laugh for hours all night. All of the students loved him.”

“It was an isolated community,” Ali said. “If an American said hi, you said hi. But we were not supposed to actually mingle with them. … We implemented what we called a strict code of faith.”

It is still hard for those who knew Mohammed to believe that he committed the acts he reportedly has confessed to. They described him as a strictly religious man who was very giving. His apartment used to be the place where everyone liked to hang out, said Ali.

Not all Muslims were as religious as Mohammed, said Sammy Zitawi, who graduated from the engineering school in 1987. The religious groups tended to keep more to themselves while other students, like him, interacted with the black students.

“I chose to live an American life and it was fun for me,” said Zitawi, a businessman who lives in Greensboro with his wife and their five children. “It bothers me when a very minimal number of Muslims did a bad thing, and people look at all of us as if we are bad.”

During the 1980s, A&T, like many black colleges, began aggressively recruiting foreign faculty members to build strong academic programs that focused on research. The engineering school dean was from the Middle East, and he used his contacts to attract engineering students from the region.

“More faculty led to more students and that created a culture in Greensboro,” said Harold Martin, chairman of the electrical engineering department at A&T in the mid-’80s.

There was a particularly rapid growth of students from countries such as Kuwait and Iran because of oil wealth in the region, said Martin, now senior vice president of academic affairs for the University of North Carolina system. “It was a positive thing for the school. … What we started seeing was a bright group of students in the classroom that included people of various backgrounds.”

The students’ intent, according to Zitawi, was to come to the U.S. to get an education and then return to their home countries. Zitawi said he could think of nothing that happened during their experience as students that could have led Mohammed down such a destructive path.

It is still hard for him to believe that a man who was so brilliant, funny and likable could have been responsible for the terrorist attacks.

“I remember nothing negative about Khalid. But people change,” said Zitawi. “This guy was brilliant and if he had used his knowledge in a good way, he could have been a Nobel Prize winner. He used it in a way that everyone knows him for changing the world, but not in a good way.”