Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Confessed To Being The 9/11 Mastermind. 20 Years Later, He’s ’s Still Awaiting Trial
For the past 20 years, I have been chasing a ghost – the man who single-handedly masterminded the attacks on New York and Washington and launched an American war against terrorism that continues to this day.
His name is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and he is the U.S.-educated Pakistani engineer who, as the operational commander of al-Qaida, also orchestrated dozens of other terrorist plots and attacks against Americans and other innocents around the world.
Yet since his capture in 2003, Mohammed has been kept hidden away by a U.S. government that claims to want to bring him to justice but never has. As a result, what he did – and, importantly, why he did it – remains largely unknown to the public except for some broad-brush details.
Now, Mohammed – or KSM as he is commonly known – stands at the epicenter of the most vexing questions and conflicts that have arisen during our modern age of terror that began on that blue-sky September morning.
Chief among them: Can someone who the U.S. government has admittedly tortured ever be fairly tried, convicted and sentenced to death for crimes he admitted under duress?
Can the most consequential act of terrorism known to mankind be prosecutable under U.S. laws that have existed since our nation’s inception? Or were the 9/11 attacks so monstrously transcendent of societal norms that their perpetrators can simply be secreted away without ever having the opportunity to contest the accusations against them?
Will the United States, a nation that prides itself on its foundations of democracy and the rule of law, ever bring Mohammed to justice? And what does it say about America that it can’t lay out its case publicly for the world – and the survivors of the nearly 3,000 victims – to see?
At the end of the second World War, a U.S.-led coalition charged, prosecuted, convicted and executed the top leadership of Nazi Germany within two years of the cessation of hostilities. At the outset of the Nuremberg trials, chief U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson gave a soaring oration about the grave responsibility of devising and conducting the first trial in history for “crimes against the peace of the world”:
The military tribunals that followed, according to most observers, produced a fair, transparent and just result – and a vast body of publicly available evidence for the annals of history.
I have thought often of Nuremberg and Jackson’s remarks since early 2002, when I first began trying to anticipate what the U.S. government would do with 9/11 suspects.
Since then, I have pursued Mohammed to nearly every continent on the globe and, ultimately, to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay where he still awaits trial for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
A GHOST EMERGES IN PAKISTAN
Six months after the 9/11 attacks, an FBI agent told me a shocking – and highly-classified – secret in a pub just blocks from the still-smoldering World Trade Center wreckage.
At the time, the entire might of the U.S. military and intelligence machine was focused on finding Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader whose claim of responsibility had made him the public face of the worst terrorist attacks of the modern era.
But the agent, attending a retirement party for one of his international terrorism squad colleagues, confided that the FBI had learned about someone else who might be far more personally responsible than bin Laden for virtually every aspect of the attacks. And agents believed the man was orchestrating potentially many other operations around the globe, some of them imminent.
After much pleading on my part, the agent looked this way and that to make sure his colleagues weren’t listening, bent toward me and murmured the man’s name: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Within hours, I was calling sources at the highest levels of the U.S. government, including a senior White House national security official. He insisted – falsely, it turns out – that he’d never heard of a man by that name, or anyone else with a central role in the attacks.
I kept digging. Because I had spent the year before 9/11 covering the growing threat posed by al-Qaida on U.S. soil, I had developed a good understanding of how the terrorist network operated on the global stage. I also knew first-hand how the U.S. government had been trying – with some success – to unravel it using the same criminal investigative strategies that the FBI and Justice Department had developed over many decades.
That previous summer, for instance, I had watched in a Manhattan courtroom as prosecutors persuaded a jury to convict some of the al-Qaida foot soldiers who blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. The blasts killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded more than 4,500 others. It was quick, on-the-ground FBI gumshoe work that sent the defendants to prison for many lifetimes.
And I had interviewed dozens of FBI agents, Justice Department prosecutors and White House officials involved in the Millennium Bomber case. That resulted in criminal convictions for an Algerian-born Canadian named Ahmed Ressam and two cronies who had plotted to blow up Los Angeles International Airport at the turn of the century the year before.
One FBI agent had logged 400,000 flight miles and learned French in order to build that case. Like his counterparts investigating the Africa embassy bombings and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole warship in Yemen, he had bagged and tagged evidence and obtained incriminating statements that proved essential in numerous criminal investigations.
In each of these, prosecutors and agents laid out a meticulously documented case against the accused. Their lawyers fought tooth and nail to make sure the process was fair and transparent. I remember thinking this was the American system of justice at its best.
GATHERING EVIDENCE – AND DETAINEES
The 9/11 attacks, though, basically threw that system out the window. In the frenzied aftermath, the gloves came off, as then-Vice President Dick Cheney would so famously say. And the Bush administration took the counter-terrorism portfolio away from FBI agents and federal prosecutors and gave it to the CIA and the Pentagon.
That was why American spies and soldiers had toppled the Taliban, al-Qaida’s protectors in Afghanistan, and bombed bin Laden’s suspected mountain redoubts. That made sense, given that the wily Saudi recluse was believed to be holed up with a security phalanx of dozens or even hundreds of heavily armed fighters.
The FBI’s involvement in 9/11 began as a search and rescue mission, with its Strategic Information and Operations Center providing multi-agency analytical, logistical and administrative support for the teams on the ground in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
The crash sites soon became crime scenes, and the tedious process of evidence collection became one small facet of a large scale, global terrorism investigation. The FBI dubbed it PENTTBOM, combining the Pentagon with two T’s in honor of the trade center’s Twin Towers.
The FBI’s new director, Robert Mueller, was on the job only a week when the 9/11 attacks occurred, but he immediately deployed agents to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other al-Qaida operational hotspots.
I soon followed. And thanks to introductions made by some of the bureau’s elder statesmen – and they were all men – I spent time with some agents at the center of the fast-expanding investigation.
By early June, I had enough information to publish a story about KSM and the secret U.S. effort to apprehend him.
The hunt for Mohammed was by then a guns-drawn law enforcement pursuit of a criminal suspect through the streets of Pakistan’s major cities. Two of the agents who had led the Africa embassy and Cole bombing investigations were even the ones who got a senior al-Qaida supporter to cough up KSM’s name while questioning him in a hospital bed near Lahore.
The FBI helped catch one KSM associate after another. But each one was quickly handed over to the CIA, which put them on jets headed for its new archipelago of overseas “black site” prisons.
When Mohammed himself was finally caught in the Pakistani military garrison city of Rawalpindi in March 2003, the CIA took custody of him too. Like other suspected senior al-Qaida operatives, he was brutally tortured by CIA contractors in an effort to obtain information about future attacks.
KSM was waterboarded 187 times, and subjected to other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, as the Bush administration euphemistically called them, according to a Senate report on the CIA torture program. Those included “facial and abdominal slaps, the facial grab, stress positions, standing sleep deprivation (with his hands at or above head level), nudity, and water dousing.”
He was also subjected to rectal rehydration “without a determination of medical need,” in order to demonstrate “total control over the detainee.” Mohammed, all of 5 foot 4 inches, quickly lost more than 50 pounds, or a third of his body weight.
The torture sessions occurred over a matter of just a few weeks. But Mohammed and the others were milked for information in CIA prisons until September 2006, when President Bush announced – with much fanfare – they were being transferred to Guantanamo Bay for trial before military commissions.
A page from the CIA torture report released by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein D-Calif., Dec. 9, 2014. U.S. Senate investigators delivered a damning indictment of CIA interrogations, accusing the spy agency of inflicting suffering on prisoners beyond its legal limits and peddling unsubstantiated stories that the harsh questioning saved American lives. Page 83 of the report refers to rectal hydration as a means to “clear a person’s head.”More
A SLEW OF CONFESSIONS, ADMISSABILITY DEBATED
By the time the 14 suspects touched down on Cuban soil, the tribunals were already a complicated and controversial mess.
Defense lawyers appointed to represent the men immediately seized on the CIA torture as proof that Mohammed and the others could never receive a fair trial. It didn’t matter that KSM had gleefully boasted to a reporter – months before his capture – that he had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. And it was inconsequential, they said, that Mohammed claimed in his first Guantanamo court appearance that he was responsible for September 11th “from A to Z.”
None of Mohammed’s confessions mattered, defense lawyers said, because they initially had been obtained during CIA torture sessions.
I attended that March 10, 2007 hearing, and watched from behind a thick glass partition as Mohammed claimed leadership of at least 31 terrorist attacks as “Military Operational Commander for all foreign operations around the world under the direction of Sheikh Usama Bin Laden and Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri.”
Mohammed then proceeded to “admit and affirm without duress” a litany of other plots and attacks. He bragged that he was responsible for all planning and training of the 19 hijackers, including teaching them how to use English catch phrases, Internet chat rooms and American phone books so they could operate under the radar in the United States. He also had them slaughter sheep, goats and camels so they wouldn’t flinch when slashing the necks of airline pilots and crew.
He said he was “directly in charge” of al-Qaida’s biological weapons program, including the production of anthrax and dirty – or low-level radiological – bombs. He claimed responsibility for the 1993 World Trade Center attack, for which his nephew Ramzi Yousef had been tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, center, and co-defendant Walid Bin Attash, left, attending a pre-trial session at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, on Dec. 8, 2008.More
And Mohammed said he engineered the December 2001 “Shoe Bomber Operation” to down two American airplanes, and the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed 202 people, including seven Americans. He was responsible, he said, “for planning, training, surveying, and financing” the so-called Second Wave of suspected post-9/11 plots to take down America’s tallest skyscrapers, including the Library Tower in Los Angeles, the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Building in New York City.
Almost as an afterthought, Mohammed also claimed responsibility for leading operations to destroy American military vessels and oil tankers in key waterways, to blow up the Panama Canal and to assassinate several former U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter.
He made so many claims, in fact, that the FBI agent who spent most of his career chasing Mohammed would later joke that he would take credit for the bombing of Pearl Harbor if he thought he could get away with it.
Investigators later came to believe Mohammed was so expansive in his claims because it took the focus off others who remained at large and plotting attacks. FBI agents were sent on dozens of false alarms and wild goose changes, officials told me.
But many of Mohammed’s claims were true, and backed up by evidence that the FBI seized in in raids in Pakistan and elsewhere, including a computer found when he was captured.
There was one confession of Mohammed’s that day that hit home on a deeply personal level.
“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” Mohammed said during the marathon hearing. “For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”