A detailed portrait of the life and worldview of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, most senior leader of the al-Qaeda held to account for the September 11 attacks, has emerged since his capture in 2003.
Not long after he was rousted from bed and seized in a pre-dawn raid in Pakistan in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave his captors two demands: He wanted a lawyer, and he wanted to be taken to New York.
After a nearly seven-year odyssey that took him to secret Central Intelligence Agency jails in Europe and a United States military prison in Cuba, Mohammed is likely to get his wishes.
He will be the most senior leader of the al-Qaeda to date held to account for the mass murder of nearly 3,000 Americans, standing trial in Lower Manhattan while his boss, Osama bin Laden, continues to elude a worldwide dragnet.
Yet the boastful, calculating and fiercely independent Mohammed has never neatly fit the mould of an al-Qaeda chieftain. He has little use for the high-minded moralising of some of his associates, and for years before the September 11 attacks, he refused to swear an oath of loyalty to bin Laden — figuring that if the Qaeda leader cancelled the September 11 plot, he would not have to obey the order.
A detailed portrait of the life and worldview of Mohammed, 44, has emerged in the years since his capture, filled in by declassified CIA documents, interrogation transcripts, the report of the September 11 commission and his own testimony at a military tribunal. And the most significant terrorism trial in American history will be a grand stage for a man who describes himself as a “jackal,” consumed with a zeal for perpetual battle against the United States.
“The trial will be more than just a soapbox for him,” said Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism and a terrorism consultant to several government agencies. “It will be a chance for him to indict the entire system. I’m sure he’s been waiting for this for a very long time.”
The last time Mohammed had such a platform was at a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he delivered an often rambling exposition on a number of topics, including American history, citing Manifest Destiny and the Revolutionary War.
“Because [in a] war, for sure, there will be victims,” he said through a translator, explaining that he had some remorse for the children killed on September 11, 2001. “I said I’m not happy that 3,000 people been killed in America. I feel sorry even. I don’t like to kill children and the kids.”
But, he added: “This is why the language of any war in the world is killing. I mean the language of the war is victims.”
A Pakistani raised in Kuwait, Mohammed became important to the al-Qaeda’s mission in large part because of his background: He had an engineering degree from an American university, spoke passable English and had a deeper understanding of the West than any of bin Laden’s other lieutenants.
As Pakistanis in Kuwait, his relatives would have been considered second-class citizens, but they had the means to send him to the U.S. for his education. After attending secondary school in Kuwait, Mohammed was accepted at Chowan College, a small Baptist college in rural North Carolina where many foreign students came to improve their English. He later transferred to North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1986.
Not long after graduation, he travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the mujahideen fighters, who at the time were the beneficiaries of millions of dollars from the CIA in the fight against Soviet troops. Mohammed’s experience in Afghanistan gave him a first taste of the battle against the West that would come to consume his life.
Over the next decade, he plotted dozens of attacks against western targets. At his military tribunal in 2007, Mohammed recited a litany of conspiracies he said he had had a hand in, including assassination plots against President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
But demonstrating his tendency toward grandiosity, he overstated his role in many of the attacks, most terrorism experts believe, although they do not dispute his central role in planning the September 11 attacks.
It was not until the mid-1990s that U.S. counterterrorism experts began to understand Mohammed’s significance to the cause of global jihad, after a thwarted plot to blow up 12 U.S. commercial aircraft in flight. The so-called Bojinka plot, hatched in a Manila apartment with his nephew, the World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, was Mohammed’s first inspiration for using airlines as missiles against civilian targets, according to the 9/11 commission report and recently declassified CIA documents.
In 1996, Mohammed travelled to Afghanistan to sell bin Laden on an idea: simultaneously hijacking 10 aircraft and flying them into different high-profile civilian targets in the U.S. He would be on the one plane not to crash, and after the plane landed would emerge and deliver a speech condemning U.S. policy on Israel. Bin Laden dismissed the idea as impractical, but three years later he changed his mind and summoned Mohammed to Kandahar to begin planning a scaled-down version of the plot, which would eventually become the 9/11 attacks.
Some terrorism experts said bin Laden and Mohammed had as much a rivalry as a partnership. For instance, Mohammed dismissed the training bin Laden oversaw at Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, believing that climbing on jungle gyms and taking target practice with AK-47s was impractical. And like a rebellious employee, Mohammed bristled at being micromanaged by the Qaeda leader.
Yet the two men’s personalities complemented each other. “You need the charismatic dreamers like bin Laden to make a movement successful,” said Daniel Byman, a former intelligence analyst now at Georgetown University. “But you also need operators like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who can actually get the job done.”
The purpose of the September 11 attacks, Mohammed told his captors years later, was to “wake the American people up.” By hitting civilian targets, he said, he would shock Americans into recognising the impact of their government’s actions abroad, including supporting Israel in its fight against Palestinian militants.
Mohammed zealously guarded the details of the plot, telling only bin Laden, one of his advisers and a few of the senior hijackers. Even as he planned the attacks, he never committed himself to the al-Qaeda by pledging an oath, called “bayat,” to bin Laden. He was determined to keep his independence from the Qaeda leader, and he later bragged to his CIA captors that he had disobeyed bin Laden on several occasions.
He resisted constant pressure from bin Laden to launch the attacks early, and twice in 2001 told him the hijacking teams were not ready when bin Laden ordered that the attacks begin. Yet for all his professed wisdom about the U.S., Mohammed later admitted that he had completely misjudged what the American response to the September 11 attacks would be. He did not expect the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, and he did not anticipate the relentless hunt for al-Qaeda leaders throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
He even misjudged his own fate. When he was captured in Rawalpindi, he thought he would soon be travelling to New York, where he would stand trial under his indictment for the Bojinka plot. Instead, he was hooded and spirited out of Pakistan by CIA operatives, who took him first to Afghanistan and eventually to a former Soviet military base in northern Poland.
Mohammed’s initial defiance toward his captors set off an interrogation plan that would turn him into the central figure in the roiling debate over the CIA’s interrogation methods. He was subjected 183 times to the near-drowning technique called waterboarding, treatment that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has called torture. But advocates of the CIA’s methods, including former Vice-President Dick Cheney, have said that the interrogation methods produced a trove of information that helped dismantle the al-Qaeda and disrupt potential terrorism attacks.
Until the attorney general announced on Friday that Mohammed would be tried alongside four accused September 11 co-conspirators in a Manhattan federal court “just blocks away” from ground zero, his fate was far from certain. Indeed, the defence might yet seek a change of venue.
In September 2006, along with the other CIA prisoners in secret overseas jails, Mohammed was moved to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. By then, he had grown a long beard and had begun dressing in traditional Arabic clothing, cultivating a pious image far different than his dishevelled appearance after his capture in March 2003.
But even as the U.S. prepares to try him for the al-Qaeda’s most successful operation, Mohammed is still considered somewhat of an outsider in the terrorist network, rarely if ever mentioned in public pronouncements by bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al Zawahri.
Some terrorism experts believe that Mohammed will always be considered too secular — and too practical — to be completely accepted by the terrorist network’s senior leaders.
“As opposed to the rest of these guys who sit around and talk, KSM actually got the job done,” said Mr. Brachman. “That’s what set him apart, and that’s what made him so scary.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service