My Tropical Terrorist: He Took My Passport; Was He Al Qaeda?

Americans are supposedly afraid to travel while we’re at war. Not our family. In fact, while we’d longed for the Caribbean’s white sand beaches and light blue waters throughout this long, cold winter, it was W.’s decision to attack Saddam Hussein that made a tropical vacation seem more a matter of necessity than choice. If terrorists were going to attack Manhattan in retribution for our invasion of Iraq, we all agreed we’d prefer to watch the story unfold from a couple of thousand miles away, the prohibitive cost of the trip be damned.

So it came as rather a rude surprise when our brush with Al Qaeda occurred not on the New York City subway system or at Grand Central (where I always expect to run into them), but on the sun-baked island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Our adventure started when we returned to our rental villa after a day at the beach and discovered our front door wide open, the combination safe in our bedroom pried open and our valuables gone. What made the break-in intriguing to the intrepid members of the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force who dropped by that evening was that while the burglar absconded with both my wife’s and my wallets, as well as a couple of thousand dollars (the cad also filched $61 belonging to my 9-year-old from her bedstand), he also took my passport. And only my passport: Three other passports, belonging to my wife and daughters, were left behind.

The officers’ interest was further aroused when we reported that we believed we’d spotted our intruder-or at least a suspicious individual-in the vicinity of our villa as we were leaving for the beach earlier that day. I described the suspect as a male white, approximately 5-foot-10 to six feet, 180 pounds and with strong, even features. I added that he appeared Arab.

While my description might well have been fueled by post-9/11 paranoia, I informed the officers that I wrote about crime, frequently worked with the police, and thus might be slightly more adept at providing an accurate description than the average civilian. I also noted that my stolen wallet had contained an NYPD press pass.

The accumulating weight of all this information-the mystery of only one stolen passport, my description of the suspect as looking Arab and (perhaps most of all) the news that I rubbed shoulders with the NYPD on a regular basis-seemed to have a thrilling effect on at least one of the constables.

His name, and I’m not making this up, was Officer Tranquille. Though he seemed anything but, at least by the Caribbean’s laid-back standards. Officer Tranquille-whose engaging disposition turned what could have been an unpleasant experience into a fond vacation memory-was as on the ball as any detective first grade in the NYPD. Whether the subject was directions to the police station or trying to decipher our crook’s modus operandi, whenever we reached a conclusion that mirrored Officer Tranquille’s, he’d offer a well-timed “Thank you very much,” like a tropical Sherlock Holmes graciously guiding lesser forensic minds toward the light.

Officer Tranquille, after debriefing us the evening of our burglary, told us he’d return shortly. There was something he wanted to show us. In the Caribbean, when someone tells you they’ll be back soon-whether it’s your waiter, a cop or the skipper of your boat-that could mean anywhere from a day to a month.

However, the investigator was back in less than an hour with a black-and-white photograph of an Arab-looking male-your typical Al Qaeda suspect. I didn’t think he was our intruder; my wife wasn’t so sure. He had facial hair. Our suspect hadn’t. And his appearance seemed soft and rounded, almost baby-faced, not angular like our villain’s.

Officer Tranquille danced around the identity of the suspect in the photograph, as if not wanting to worry us, except to say that he’d been spotted in Tortola and that he was trying to get into the United States. We learned more about the guy when we reported to the island’s main police station a couple of days later to have “elimination prints” taken. Apparently, the police had found some promising fingerprints on our safe and they wanted to make sure they weren’t ours.

As we were waiting to see a police officer, my wife spotted a flyer on a bulletin board. It featured Officer Tranquille’s suspect, with the same picture he’d shown us. His name is Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, and the F.B.I. has issued a worldwide alert for him. According to the flyer, Mr. Shukrijumah is traveling on a Trinidadian passport and “might be planning an attack on the United States.” The suspect, an Al Qaeda field commander, is also known as “Jaffar the pilot.” While he doesn’t have an F.A.A. pilot’s license, “authorities are concerned he may be a trained pilot.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that this information set me atremble. Our main concern at that moment was persuading the kind, if slightly lackadaisical, officer who was taking our prints that it was imperative that we get to the beach as soon as possible.

However, it did occur to me that it probably wouldn’t be good for my career if Jaffar the pilot was spotted in New York flashing my press credentials. Not that our government-despite the F.B.I. warning-seemed to care all that much about catching him. When we tried to report the passport stolen, neither my mother, working the phones from New York, nor I could get more than a recording telling us to call back later.

AndwhenIwent through customs in St. Thomas on our return trip to the U.S. and tried to get them to make note of the theft-I was able to get back into the country thanks to Officer Tranquille’s excellent police report and a copy of the front page of my passport, faxeddown fromNew York-our customs agent couldn’t do any better than suggest I contact the State Department(the right number to call had to be on their Web site, she guessed) when I got home.

I doubt Jaffar the pilot managed to enter the U.S. under my name, though I did manage eventually to cancel my passport. As it turns out, our crook-though undoubtedly a creep-probably isn’t a terrorist. We learned that whoever struck us also broke into the villa next-door, where he stole some cologne and women’s jewelry, suggesting a greater attachment to the good life than the average Al Qaeda member is thought to possess. In fact, the woman whose cologne was stolen thought she’d spotted our perp on the beach a couple of days after the incident. He was working on his tan and flirting with his girlfriend.

While I thought it unlikely that a hardened terrorist would waste time tanning when there was jihad to be waged, Officer Tranquille wasn’t so sure.

“Sometimes they get bold,” he explained.

Since our burglary, four more vacation homes in the immediate vicinity were broken into, adding to my suspicion that our assailant was a common criminal, not a member of the bin Laden organization. Nonetheless, before we left, Officer Tranquille inquired whether we’d be willing to return to Tortola to identify the suspect if he was caught. We told him we’d be more than happy to fly back, just so long as the British Virgin Islands paid our airfare and put us up somewhere decent. Officer Tranquille didn’t think that would be a problem.