THE HUNT FOR KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, co-authored by Josh Meyer
“A flat-out thriller.” – Los Angeles Times
“Eye-opening investigative reporting. . .”
– The Boston Globe
“The two authors of “The Hunt for KSM” have reconstructed an almost decade-long clandestine manhunt in exacting detail, an undeniably impressive feat of sleuthing.”
— The New York Times Book Review
KIRKUS STARRED Review!
Superlative storytelling and crackling reportage define a pulse-pounding narrative tracing the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. . . A surprising, sobering look at one of the deadliest terror networks in history, and the American spy agencies charged with bringing it down.
The authors’ vivid profile of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed depicts a resourceful, charismatic man—he retained his self-possession under CIA interrogation, they contend, while spewing false information that sparked wild goose chases—and paints a detailed portrait of the workaday terrorist life of fund-raising, recruitment, bomb-rigging, and general plotting, all carried out while dodging a global manhunt. The book is disjointed and breathless at times, but it gives us one of the most revealing dispatches yet from the war on terror.
Kirkus Reviews and The Washington Post named The Hunt for KSM among the best books of 2012.
The New York Times Book Review made The Hunt an Editor’s Choice, declaring it “an undeniably impressive feat of sleuthing.”
Boston Globe says it “reads like an espionage thriller…Eye-opening investigative reporting, [and] a concrete indictment of the continued bureaucratic boondoggle that is the War on Terror.“ Read the review here.
Dina Temple-Raston of NPR says The Hunt for KSM “draws back the curtain” on 9/11 and is the ultimate primer on KSM. Read her review in the Washington Post.
Richard Raynor in The Los Angeles Times called The Hunt a flat-out thriller.
Lawfare, a blog on national security, gives The Hunt an A-plus: It is a compelling detective or spy novel, even if the events it depicted were not true. Once started, I scarcely could put it down.
The Philadelphia Review of Books calls the hunt cinematic: “McDermott and Meyer reveal how some of the most notorious terrorists in the world eluded justice despite all odds.”
“THE HUNT FOR KSM…is not just a page-turning spy thriller that masterfully reveals how the FBI and CIA failed to capture Mohammed at least a half-dozen times in the eight years leading up to 9/11, but it’s also a story about the investigative reporters’ own decade-long ‘hunt’ for intelligence about ‘one of the worst mass murderers in American history.’…A timely and groundbreaking new book….[The] details are what makes THE HUNT FOR KSM required reading.”—Jason Leopold, Truthout
Featured as one of The Daily Beast’s Hot Reads.
Seattle Times calls The Hunt for KSM “remarkable.” Read the Steve Weinberg review here.
Washington Times says it’s “gripping.”
In These Times has a glowing review here.
Lincoln Journal Star says The Hunt is a powerful page-turner.
The Christian Science Monitor names “The Hunt for KSM” one of the top non-fiction books of spring 2012.
Spy Talk’s Jeff Stein says: “For a long time, KSM was nowhere and everywhere, “a ghost.” The counterterrorism boys and girls were always a step behind. But then they caught up. How? As they say, the devil’s in the details. And they are fascinating.” Read the full review here.
Publisher’s Weekly says the pursuit of KSM “unfolds with suspenseful immediacy in this engrossing saga.”Read the full review here.
Terrorism reporters McDermott and Meyer write a fast-moving and deeply disturbing account of the CIA’s role before and after the 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, long considered the mastermind of 9/11. The book moves like a spy novel, cutting from KSM’s capture to the seven years before 9/11, when the authors convincingly show that the CIA, FBI, and Department of Justice ignored evidence regarding the danger posed by KSM, and then moving to an indictment of the torture-interrogation of KSM, which led to his withholding vital information. The journalistic foundation is rock solid.
New Yorker Magazine
Sept. 13. 2010
A REPORTER AT LARGE
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the making of 9/11.
BY TERRY MCDERMOTT
Since 2006, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s family has received one letter a year from him, sent from his cell at the Guantánamo Bay detention center. According to rules established by the American military, the correspondence must fit on a six-inch-by-six-inch portion of a pre-printed form, and its content is restricted to the familial and personal; all else is stricken by censors. Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the 9/11 attacks against America, mostly sends good wishes to his wife and children, who are now living in southeastern Iran, and to other relatives. He makes repeated references to his Islamic faith and the beneficence of Allah and his prophet. In photographs that accompanied one of the letters, Mohammed appeared shrunken from the man in the famous image taken the day of his capture: a thickset, wild-haired figure, half-dressed in his nightclothes. The image must have infuriated Mohammed, who is vain enough to have complained during a military-court hearing that a sketch artist had made his nose look too big. In the jailhouse photographs, he is almost forty pounds lighter. He stares directly at the camera, cloaked in long white robes, with a headdress framing a small, still face and a long black-and-white beard. A copy of the Koran lies open in his right hand.
On June 25, 2009, Mohammed, writing in English, made what could be read as a surprising plea for absolution: “All praise is due to Allah. I praise Him and seek His aid and His forgiveness and I seek refuge in Allah from our evil in ourselves and from our bad deeds.” Even if this were only a ritual expression of obeisance, it would stand in contrast to his customarily belligerent behavior. In his few statements that have been made public – a 2002 interview with the Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda, pieces of the United States government’s interrogations of him, Red Cross prison interviews, and his appearances before military tribunals Mohammed has been cold-bloodedly straightforward. He told Fouda that the Holy Tuesday planes operation, as Al Qaeda called the 9/11 assaults, was “designed to cause as many deaths as possible and havoc and to be a big slap for America on American soil.” Testifying before a military tribunal in 2007, he likened himself to George Washington and boasted that he planned “the 9/11 operation from A-to-Z.” Killing, he said, was simply part of his job: “War start from Adam when Cain he killed Abel until now. It’s never gonna stop killing of people.” In that appearance, he boasted of murdering the American reporter Daniel Pearl: “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”
Since June, 2002, when the F.B.I. first identified Mohammed as the “mastermind” of 9/11, he has become one of history’s most famous criminals. Yet, unlike Osama bin Laden, he has remained essentially unknown. Efforts to uncover more than the outlines of his biography have produced sketchy and sometimes contradictory results. (These include my own, for my book “Perfect Soldiers,” published in 2005.) Even basic facts have been in doubt; there are, for example, at least three versions of his birth date. For almost the entire decade before he was captured, in early 2003, Mohammed was a fugitive, deliberately obscuring his tracks. Bin Laden, meanwhile, was hosting television interviewers, giving speeches, and distributing videos and text versions of his proclamations to whoever would have them.
Insofar as we know Mohammed, we see him as a brilliant behind-the-scenes tactician and a resolute ideologue. As it turns out, he is earthy, slick in a way, but naïve, and seemingly motivated as much by pathology as by ideology. Fouda describes Mohammed’s Arabic as crude and colloquial and his knowledge of Islamic texts as almost nonexistent. A journalist who observed Mohammed’s appearance at one of the Guantánamo hearings likened his voluble performance to that of a Pakistani Jackie Mason. A college classmate said that he was an eager participant in impromptu skits and plays. A man who knew him from a mosque in Doha talked about his quick wit and chatty, glad-handing style. He was an operator.
In at least one important way, though, his boasts are accurate. Mohammed, not Osama bin Laden, was the essential figure in the 9/11 plot. The attacks were his idea, carried out under his direct command. Mohammed has said that he went so far as to resist swearing allegiance to bin Laden and Al Qaeda until after the attacks, so that he could carry them out if Al Qaeda lost courage.
The United States intends to try Mohammed this year or next, in a venue and a jurisdiction yet to be determined. The specifics of the trial where it should be held, and whether it ought to be a military or a civil hearing have been the subject of intense debate. In the absence of bin Laden, it is hard to imagine a more spectacular legal proceeding; even without a location or a prosecutor, it has been called the trial of the century. Wherever Mohammed may be tried, he seems to have done much of the prosecution’s work for it, describing himself as a righteous, relentless executioner whose version of making war knows no bounds. But the process will be aimed at assessing guilt, not causes. It will not tell us much about who Mohammed is, or about the forces that shaped him, which are, to an alarming extent, still at work in the places where he came of age.
Badawiya, the neighborhood where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed grew up, sits between the sand and the sea on the southernmost edge of Fahaheel, a suburb of Kuwait City. The neighborhood mosque overlooks a mile-wide field of rubble and weeds, a buffer against the Shuaiba petrochemical complex, whose flare stacks sputter and glow around the clock. Just a few miles to the west are Ahmadi, the administrative center of the Kuwait Oil Company, and the bountiful Burgan oil field, where the stores of oil that essentially created modern Kuwait were discovered, in 1938.
Mohammed’s parents moved to Kuwait from Pakistan in the nineteen-fifties, at the beginning of the country’s oil boom. His father, his father’s brother, and their young families came together; the brothers, both religious men, had been recruited to head mosques. Mohammed’s father became the imam in Ahmadi. The mosque, like most buildings from that era, was built of drab brown brick and today looks as if it could stand some freshening up. Its twin minarets rise above the Kuwait Oil Company corporate reservation (built by the British before the Kuwaitis nationalized the oil industry), a tidy plot of tree-lined streets and white-fenced worker cottages that seems to have been shipped in whole from a greener world.
Sheikh Mohammed and his wife, Halima, had four children when they arrived in Kuwait. Five more were born after their arrival; Khalid was the second-to-last child and the youngest of four boys. The family travelled on Pakistani passports, but both Sheikh Mohammed and Halima were ethnic Baluchis, from a swath of hard, dry land across the Gulf of Oman from the Arabian Peninsula. Baluchistan, as it has been called for centuries, includes parts of contemporary Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but existed as an entity long before the boundaries of any of these modern states were drawn.
The oil money that drew Mohammed’s family transformed Kuwait. At its first formal census, in 1957, the country had a population of three hundred and six thousand. By 1985, it was nearly six times as large. The boom gave native Kuwaitis a lifelong assurance of comfort: guaranteed jobs, housing, medical care, education, and pensions. The foreign guest workers, known as bidoon mostly Palestinians, Egyptians, and South Asians were not eligible for the benefits, though they made up the majority of Kuwaiti residents. The Baluchis were bidoon. For Mohammed’s family, this was a fundamental fact of life.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, according to the information he provided to the Red Cross, was born on April 14, 1965. His father, who was fifty-seven, died four years later, and his three brothers took over his schooling. Khalid was much younger than his oldest siblings and had nieces and nephews his own age. He and his nephews attended Fahaheel Secondary School, in a three-story brick building that accommodated as many as twelve hundred boys. (Girls attended separate female-only institutions and did not progress beyond secondary school.)
Mohammed, like his brothers, was a superior student. “He was one of my smartest students in the science section,” Sheikh Ahmed Dabbous, a family friend and a teacher at the school, said. He was also rebellious; he told interrogators that he and his nephew Abdul Basit Abdul Karim (later internationally known as Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center) once tore down the Kuwaiti flag from atop their schoolhouse. The school had a diverse student body Kuwaitis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Baluchis but the groups were not encouraged to mix. Sports clubs, for example, were formed for the exclusive membership of Kuwaitis.
Most of the teachers in the Kuwaiti public schools that Mohammed attended were Palestinians, who at the time made up the largest group of expatriates in Kuwait. At one point, there were an estimated four hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians in Kuwait, threatening to outnumber the natives. Hawalli, the area of Kuwait City where many of them lived, was known locally as the West Bank. As in other Arab countries, the Palestinians predominated in the ranks of engineers, physicians, and teachers. A United Nations program established after the formation of Israel to help resettle Palestinians included an ambitious educational component, and, by some measures, in the nineteen-seventies Palestinians were among the best-educated populations in the world. Kuwait also became a center of Palestinian political activism. Yasir Arafat worked there as a civil engineer, and Khaled Meshal, a founder of Hamas, graduated from Kuwait University and taught school in Kuwait City. Fatah, the Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine, was founded in Kuwait, in the late nineteen-fifties. One of Mohammed’s co-conspirators told investigators that Palestinians in Kuwait were considered forsaken people, suffering at the hands of Israel and the U.S.
In 1979, two events transformed the Muslim world: Shiite Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran and instituted an Islamic Republic; and the Soviet Union invaded Muslim Afghanistan and installed a puppet government. After the Soviet invasion, a call to jihad went out, and Muslim leaders were eager to ally themselves with it. It provided an opportunity to show their commitment to Islamic action without much risk at home. The revolt in Iran provoked a more complicated response. In Kuwait, Shiites made up about a third of the population, and they saw Khomeini’s rise to power as a model for Islamic reform in their own country. The government, to show its commitment to a more Islamic Kuwait, turned to local Islamist groups. Of these, the one that had the greatest effect on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the nineteen-twenties, denounced the iniquities of the modern world and called for a return to a strict interpretation of Islam. The Kuwaiti government tolerated the Brotherhood, which by the nineteen-eighties was dominated by Palestinians, as a hedge against potential threats from leftist groups; in one of the persistent oddities of political life in much of the Middle East, the Brotherhood was at times outlawed and yet still allowed to put up candidates for election. Daniel Byman, a former member of the 9/11 Commission who is now a professor at Georgetown University, says that this sort of ambivalence allows governments to maintain control of extremist groups. “You keep everyone semi-illegal,” Byman says. “You always have an excuse to crack down. ‘Go ahead and run that school and hospital.’ Five years later you want to clip their wings? ‘Oh, you don’t have a permit? Too bad.’ ”
While some in Kuwait’s ruling élite worried about the persistence of rural, desert values in a modernizing, urbanizing culture, Islamists were worried about the opposite, the secularization of the new Kuwait. The Brotherhood sought to change that with public rhetoric and quiet, private recruitment. Its members monitored mosques, finding chances to proselytize. On weekends, they would hold meetings at tents set up in the desert, where students would gather to eat together, read books, perform plays, and pray.
Mohammed’s older brother Zahed became a student leader of the Brotherhood at Kuwait University. When Mohammed was sixteen, he told American interrogators, he followed Zahed’s lead and began attending the Brotherhood’s desert camps. It was there that he became enamored of the idea of jihad and studied the ideology -anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-modern of Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s founder.
When Mohammed graduated from high school, the family decided that they could afford to send only one boy abroad; as bidoon, they did not qualify for the generous government scholarships. The older brothers chose Khalid, and he left home in 1984.
In the years since Mohammed left, his family appears to have scattered across the region. Most of them fled during Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, in 1990. The only one who remained was a cousin of Mohammed’s, who is now the muezzin, or prayer caller, at the Ahmadi mosque. An older brother, at least two sisters, and some cousins live in Iran, along with Mohammed’s wife and children. One of the children is mentally disabled and another is epileptic, according to a Pakistani cousin. Two of his children were captured by authorities in 2002 and held in custody for at least several months; they are now with the family. The family survives by selling handicrafts, harvesting dates, and keeping a small herd of goats for their milk.
The Badawiya neighborhood that Mohammed knew as an adolescent no longer exists. Kuwait has gone on a remarkable building boom since Saddam Hussein’s regime, in neighboring Iraq, fell. Entire new towns are being erected in the desert. Residential subdivisions now line the highway south from Kuwait City to Fahaheel. Even a few years ago, much of Fahaheel was a sad-sack collection of barbershops, two-table cafés, money changers, and secondhand electronics shops with galvanized-tin roofs. Now much of that old oil town has been razed and remade as a sparkling Southern California suburb, with gated subdivisions, marinas, and shopping malls. Billboards that once announced “Happiness in Islam” have been replaced by advertisements for KFC.
Even the bureaucratic records have vanished. During the occupation, the Iraqis destroyed or shipped back to Baghdad all the Kuwaiti government paperwork they could find educational, biographical, and residential records included. The record of Mohammed’s upbringing was effectively deleted.
In January, 1984, Mohammed, travelling on a Pakistani passport, arrived in tiny, remote Murfreesboro, North Carolina, to attend Chowan College, a two-year school that was advertised abroad by Baptist missionaries. Mohammed had applied shortly after graduating from Fahaheel Secondary School, in 1983. He listed his brother Zahed as his father on the enrollment forms. His bill, $2,245 for the spring semester, was paid in full the day of matriculation, January 10. Murfreesboro population about two thousand, with no bars and a single pizza shop must have seemed intensely foreign. There were dusky rivers meandering through dense pine forests, cotton fields, and tobacco patches. Not a sand dune in sight.
Chowan did not require the English-proficiency exam that was then widely mandated for international students, so foreign enrollees often spent only a semester or two there to improved their English a bit, then transferred to four-year universities. By the nineteen-eighties, the foreign-student contingent was dominated by Middle Eastern men, about fifty of whom were enrolled each year. Mohammed, though he was Pakistani by heritage, spoke Arabic, and was integrated into the Arab group. Arab students who were there at the time said they were the butt of jokes and harassment, in the anti-Muslim era that followed the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, in 1979. The local boys called them Abbie Dhabies, a play on Abu Dhabi, one of the states of the United Arab Emirates. The Arabs were required, along with all the other students, to attend a weekly Christian chapel service.
A group of Middle Easterner men lived in Parker Hall, a brick dormitory with views of Lake Vann, a small pond on campus. They often cooked, ate, and prayed together. They left their shoes in the dormitory corridor, an apparently irresistible target for locals, who sometimes threw the shoes in the lake. Other students occasionally propped garbage pails filled with water against their doors, then knocked and ran away. When the young men answered, water flooded in.
Mohammed did well in the pre-engineering curriculum, taking classes in English and chemistry. After one semester, he left for North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, in Greensboro, a historically black college on the Piedmont plain, in the central part of the state, and began to study mechanical engineering. One of his nephews, Abdul Karim Abdul Karim, came to A. & T. at the same time. Mohammed, like other radical Muslims, developed a dislike for the U.S. in his time here. He told investigators that he had little contact with Americans in college, but found them to be debauched and racist. He also said that he spent a brief time in prison for failing to pay bills. A classmate, Sami Zitawi, told me in 2003 that it wasn’t uncommon for one of the students to spend a night in the county jail, in Greensboro. He himself was hauled there for failing to pay parking tickets.
Mohammed completed his college requirements in three years, and in December, 1986, both he and his nephew Abdul Karim graduated with engineering degrees. Mohammed returned home to Kuwait. His old high-school teacher, Sheikh Ahmed Dabbous, sought him out and found him radically changed. “When he goes there, he sees Americans don’t like Arabs and Islam,” Dabbous told me in 2003. When Dabbous asked why, Mohammed told him, “Because of Israel. Most Americans hate Arabs because of this.” Dabbous said, “He’s a very normal boy before kind, generous, always the smiling kind. After he came back, he’s a different man. He’s very sad. He doesn’t speak. He just sits there.” He told Dabbous he was upset that Americans hated Islam. “I talked to him, to change his mind, to tell him this is just a few Americans,” Dabbous said. “He refused to speak to me about it again. He was set. When Khalid said this, I told him we must meet again. He said, ‘No, my ideas are very strong. Don’t talk with me again about this matter.’ ”
Throughout Mohammed’s teen-age years, Muslims everywhere were roused by the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. By the late eighties, the Afghan guerrillas known as mujahideen, with material support from the United States, the Arab nations, and China, had mastered the main act of any resistance: frustrating the enemy. Would-be fighters came from around the world to join the struggle.
Before Mohammed left for the U.S., his brother Zahed had started working for a Kuwaiti charity called Lajnat al-Dawa al-Islamia, the Committee for Islamic Appeal. In 1985, L.D.I. asked Zahed to move to Peshawar, Pakistan, to run war-relief operations in support of the Afghan resistance. L.D.I. was among the largest of more than a hundred and fifty aid organizations that set up offices in Peshawar. It had more than twelve hundred employees in Pakistan and Afghanistan and a four-million-dollar annual budget, which funded hospitals, clinics, and Koran-study centers. Two brothers, Aref and Abed, had followed Zahed to Peshawar. Almost immediately after returning from America, Mohammed, unable to find work at home, went to join them.
When he arrived in Peshawar, in 1987, it was a place full of spies and adventure. The buccaneering Texas congressman Charlie Wilson periodically rolled through carrying American gifts, the latest of which Stinger missiles had just arrived. The fight against the Soviets had been going on for eight years, and the resistance was beginning to sense the prospect of victory. “The Afghans were ecstatic,” a Western diplomat who was stationed in Peshawar at the time said. “They thought they were really doing some stuff over there.”
As the head of an influential charity, Zahed was a figure of importance. He worked out of an office on Arbab Road, in University Town, the newest and most Westernized neighborhood in the city, and knew virtually everyone significant in town: resistance leaders, their Arab funders, Pakistani spies, journalists.
Mohammed and his brother Abed went to work for Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of Ittihad el-Islami, one of the Afghan-refugee political parties headquartered in Peshawar. Abed worked at the Party’s newspaper, and Mohammed taught engineering at Sayyaf’s University of Dawa al-Jihad, situated about thirty miles east of Peshawar. (A little farther down the main road was the mosque and madrassa where many Taliban leaders were schooled.) Dawa al-Jihad was a rough but functioning college; as many as two thousand students came to learn engineering, medical technology, and literature, and also to train at jihadi camps that Sayyaf ran. Next to the school, separated by high mud walls, was the Jalozai refugee camp, home to more than a hundred and twenty thousand Afghans. Mohammed also worked there, helping to organize the delivery of supplies.
Mohammed and his brothers became part of the small community of foreigners in Peshawar, which included some of the most influential figures of radical Islam. Among them was Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian who essentially created the notion of radical jihad, redefining what had been a personal struggle for righteousness as a fight against nonbelievers. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a founder of the Egypt-based group Islamic Jihad who was later the second-in-command of Al Qaeda, was also there, as was Osama bin Laden. Most of the men prayed at a small mosque called Saba-e-Leil on a dead-end alley off Arbab Road, not far from Zahed’s office. Mohammed married a Pakistani woman he met at Jalozai; Zahed is said to have married her sister.
The Soviet leadership began withdrawing troops in 1988, and by February, 1989, the last soldier was gone. Before the Soviets left, they installed a government led by Mohammed Najibullah, a former head of the secret police. The mujahideen argued that the regime could be upended with a quick military victory, and they chose to attack Jalalabad, a garrison town situated just across the Khyber Pass from Peshawar. A small group of Arabs, including Mohammed’s brother Abed, wanted to lead their own attack, according to an account of the battle later published by Azzam. They were dissuaded and instead fell in behind the Afghan ranks.
The attack, ill-conceived and poorly executed, turned into a two-month siege. Casualties were heavy. A group of the Arabs wandered into a minefield, setting off a series of explosions. Among the dead was Abed Sheikh Mohammed. Azzam wrote, “With the Eternal Ones did this emigrant rider pass on, accompanied by the hearts of all who knew him.” After the failed effort at Jalalabad, blame was passed around in every direction. Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani Prime Minister, was said to have been especially fervent in her support for the attack, and some in the Arab community faulted the Pakistani advisers; others faulted the Americans.
It was a period of deep disconsolation among Mohammed’s cohort. Late that year, Azzam, the heart of the Arab resistance, was killed, along with two of his sons, by a bomb on the way to Friday prayers. The murder was never solved, and conspiracy theories spread. The United States began withdrawing aid, and some mujahideen felt that they had been duped into serving America’s interests and then tossed aside. Resistance groups began fighting one another. The factions united for long enough to establish a new government, replacing Najibullah’s regime, but it did not last. Eventually, the Peshawar diplomat said, “the Prime Minister was shelling the capital.”
The frustrations were compounded by events elsewhere. In August, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait; by early the following year, an American-led counterattack had forced it to retreat. Many of the mujahideen experienced this as a further insult. Bin Laden, in particular, was infuriated, claiming that the Saudis, by allowing the U.S. to base its soldiers in the kingdom, were violating a dictate to keep infidels out of the “land of the two holy mosques.” Then, in October, the American government announced military and economic sanctions against Pakistan, which had just been revealed to have a nuclear-weapons program. Those who thought that the U.S. had abandoned their cause took this as further evidence.
Many of the original Arab mujahideen were gone, including bin Laden, who had gone home to Saudi Arabia in 1989, leaving behind a fledgling organization to coordinate jihad activities: Al Qaeda. Zahed stopped working for L.D.I. and went to the United Arab Emirates. (He was deported from the U.A.E. in 1998 for his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, and moved to Bahrain, where he now works as an executive at a large business conglomerate. When I found him there this spring, at a spacious house near the sea, with children’s toys and bicycles strewn around outside, he threatened to sue me for invading his privacy.) Mohammed, with the sponsorship of a member of the ruling family of Qatar, Abdullah bin Khalid al-Thani, moved his family to Doha, the capital. At a farmhouse outside of town, Thani provided what amounted to a hostel for former mujahideen. An American government official in the region at the time recalled that Thani told him, “These people went out there and fought for their faith and now they’ve been abandoned by their countries and I feel sorry for them.”
Mohammed was given a job as an engineer in the water department of the tiny emirate’s public-works ministry. How much time he spent at his job is unclear, but it was apparent that he hadn’t quit the fight. He established a small fund-raising network, soliciting wealthy men around the Gulf, then bundling modest amounts of money perhaps a few hundred dollars at a time and shipping it on. Fund-raising for religious causes is ubiquitous in the Gulf; Mohammed simply adapted it to the cause of militant jihad. He was in and out of the country, the diplomat said, popping up in the U.A.E., Bahrain, Pakistan, and, occasionally, Kuwait. Still, his name was almost never mentioned in broader counterterrorism discussions, and it wasn’t evident that he was anything more than a bit player. “We knew he was sort of in possession of money and sending it somewhere,” the American official said.
Mohammed seems not to have made close friends. In years of reporting, I did not find a single person from Kuwait or North Carolina who had had any continued contact with him. His most constant companion appears to have been his nephew Abdul Basit Abdul Karim, his partner in tearing down the flag at their Kuwaiti high school. Physically, the two were near-opposites. Basit was tall, lanky, usually clean-shaven, and rakish. Mohammed was more than half a foot shorter, stout, bearded, and bespectacled. What they shared was a rough charm that they used to persuade others to go along with what must often have seemed outlandish ambitions.
They had spent time together in Peshawar, where Basit had visited in 1988, on a break from studying electrical engineering in Wales. He returned in 1991 and trained at Khalden Camp, in Afghanistan, and taught courses in bomb-making, developing a reputation as a clever designer of explosive devices. The Arab mujahideen had argued about the future of their cause, debating whether it should be confined to Afghanistan until they prevailed there or broadened to confront corrupt Arab regimes elsewhere. Basit didn’t waste time on debates; he began making plans and proselytizing. One of his cousins later told investigators that during this period Basit inspired him to join the jihad beyond Afghanistan. Basit and Mohammed both frequently appealed to relatives for logistical support. Two of Basit’s cousins and at least two of his brothers have been accused of working with Mohammed.
In 1991, Basit got in touch with Abdul Hakim Murad, a fellow-Baluchi and a boyhood friend from Kuwait, who was then in the U.S. training as a pilot. Basit told him that he wanted to attack Israel, but thought it too difficult. He would attack America instead. He asked Murad to suggest potential Jewish targets in the United States, and Murad agreed to think about it. After Murad finished his training and returned to the Gulf, in 1992, Basit got in touch again and asked if he had identified a target.
“I told him the World Trade Center,” Murad later told investigators. “He asked me why, and I gave him the reasons. I asked him what he was going to do. He told me that he took training for six months in Afghanistan. I asked him what kind of training. So he told me, ‘Chocolate.’ I answered, ‘What do you mean by chocolate?’ He said, ‘Boom.’ And I immediately understood that he took training in explosives, and he told me it is time to go to the United States.”
Why the United States? Murad said, “I was working for my religion, because I feel that my Muslim brothers in Palestine are suffering. Muslims in Bosnia are suffering, everywhere they are suffering. And, if you check the reason for the suffering, you will find that the U.S. is the reason for this. If you ask anybody, even if you ask children, they will tell you that the U.S. is supporting Israel, and Israel is killing our Muslim brothers in Palestine. The United States is acting like a terrorist, but nobody can see that.”
In the fall of 1992, Basit, accompanied by a man he had recruited, bought a first-class ticket from Karachi to New York City. His passport identified him as an Iraqi named Ramzi Yousef. He had no entry visa; when questioned at immigration, he quickly admitted that the I.D. was fake. He asked for political asylum and eventually was freed on his own recognizance, to await a hearing.
Basit quickly made acquaintances through a mosque in Jersey City and recruited men to join him in a plan to bomb the World Trade Center. The attack was a ramshackle, small-scale affair. In just a few months, Basit designed and built a bomb that cost about three thousand dollars. Mohammed, still in the Gulf, conferred with him often by telephone and contributed six hundred and sixty dollars. He said later that he was inspired by the ease with which Basit operated in the United States. The bomb was stowed in a rented van and parked in the basement garage of the North Tower. Basit’s plan was that it would topple the North Tower into the South Tower, bringing them both to the ground.
The bomb exploded on February 26, 1993, and although it was insufficient to the intended task, it caused millions of dollars in damage and killed six people. Basit had come upon his own notion of jihad: not just a war against states but a non-stop, all-out war on all enemies, anywhere they could be reached.
After the bombing, Basit fled the United States again flying first class, on Pakistani International Airlines out of J.F.K. and met up with Mohammed in Karachi, where Mohammed had an apartment. Karachi is a wild sprawl of a place, whose population, now estimated at eighteen million, is growing at a viral rate of five per cent a year. It’s ridden with crime of all kinds: organized, ordinary, sectarian. Murders are an everyday occurrence, and “What to Do in Case of Kidnap” notices are sometimes posted, like earthquake advice in California, on public bulletin boards. Karachi, like the rest of Pakistan, has been at war with itself for thirty years. During this time, jihadi groups, backed by the Pakistani state, have fought India in Kashmir. There has also been an ongoing Sunni-Shiite proxy war funded by Saudi Arabia and Iran. “Pakistan was the confrontation to see who was going to be the dominant force in the Muslim world,” an American diplomat in the region at the time said. The lines of battle are drawn by whichever criminal gangs, mafias, or sectarian jihadists have the strong hand in a particular place at a particular moment. One night, riding through the dusty, rutted alleys of the vast Lyari slum, I noticed young men idling on every block with what appeared to be AK-47s slung over their shoulders. I said that it was odd that so many police had been deployed here, and was informed that there were few police in Lyari. On another visit, I was made to lie on the floor of the car until we reached our destination.
Mohammed’s apartment was situated in Sharfabad, a pleasant middle-class neighborhood near one of the city’s few large parks. When he and Basit met there, Mohammed was not yet thirty, and Basit was even younger. Both were entrepreneurial. Basit had thrown together his New York crew in a matter of weeks. Mohammed travelled around the world, building contacts and a system of ad-hoc terror networks. Unlike most terrorists who preceded them, they lacked a focused ideology. They picked targets to suit the moment. Working together or singly, they attacked Shiites in Iran, Sunnis in Pakistan, and Americans and Jews wherever they happened to find them, carrying out a decade-long campaign of terror and murder that stopped only with their arrests. Manila was the first target.
They chose the Philippines because they thought that it would be a good base of operations. Labor was cheap. Radical Islamists, from the Abu Sayyaf group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, were close at hand. Members of both groups had trained in mujahideen camps during the Afghan jihad, and Basit and Mohammed had acquaintances among them.
Mohammed and Basit arrived in Manila sometime in early 1994, but Mohammed was in and out of the country for months. When investigators reconstructed his movements, they were shocked to discover how widely he ranged South America, Africa, Europe, other points in Asia. He and Basit were joined in Manila by a third man, Wali Khan Amin Shah, who had met Mohammed during the Afghan jihad. Shah befriended a local bar girl and they rented an apartment on Singalong Street. Basit stayed at the downscale Manor Hotel. Mohammed moved into Tiffany Mansions, a new, thirty-five-story condominium in the leafy Greenhills section of town. He rented a Toyota sedan and wore khakis and polo shirts. He left in the morning and came home at night, as if commuting to the office. He tipped well and ordered in hamburgers for dinner.
The three men met at the corner 7-Eleven, at shopping malls and hotel bars, and at karaoke clubs in the Ermita entertainment district. They paid local women to open cell-phone and bank accounts, telling the women that they were recuperating veterans of the Afghan war or, in Mohammed’s case, a Gulf businessman. Basit had a girlfriend who sold perfume at a shopping mall. (Basit considered himself something of a ladies’ man. At one of his trials, he asked the court stenographer on a date.) Later in the year, Shah and his girlfriend took a room in the Doña Josefa, a transient hotel not far from Ermita.
The Josefa’s chief recommendation was its location, facing President Quirino Avenue, a main artery connecting the old government and financial center of Manila and the neighborhood where the Vatican ambassador to the Philippines lived. This provided a strategic advantage for Mohammed and Basit’s latest plan: to assassinate Pope John Paul II. (Basit and Mohammed did not appear to have any particular animus toward the Catholic Church; members of Abu Sayyaf suggested the Pope as a target.) The Pope had scheduled a weeklong visit to Manila for January, 1995, and would likely travel along President Quirino Avenue several times.
In late 1994, Shah moved out of the Josefa and Basit moved in. Using various aliases, he collected the materials to make bombs: nitroglycerine, citric and nitric acid, wire, cotton balls, watches. He and Mohammed discussed various ways to kill John Paul, including suicide bombers disguised as priests, remote-control bombs, and an aerial attack. They learned that President Bill Clinton was to visit in the same period, and discussed ways to kill him, too. But Philippine authorities heard rumors of threats against the Pope and added security throughout the capital. Basit and Mohammed, worried that they couldn’t penetrate the heightened defenses, focused instead on another, more innovative attack.
In Karachi, Basit had introduced his pilot friend, Murad, to Mohammed giving Mohammed’s name as Abdul Magid and Mohammed had quizzed Murad about pilot training and flying aircraft. They met again, at Mohammed’s apartment, then at a Karachi restaurant. Each time, Mohammed had interrogated Murad about flying. Out of those conversations, Mohammed and Basit devised a plan.
Basit thought that he could build electronically controlled bombs small enough to smuggle aboard airliners. The explosive would be formed by combining volatile liquids, which could be carried onto planes in small plastic bottles, such as those used for contact-lens solutions. For a timer, he would use Casio Databank watches, which had programmable alarms. Because the watches could be set as much as a year in advance, Basit’s men could place the bombs on board aircraft and set them to explode on a future flight.
The plan was to deposit the bombs on airliners bound for the United States. According to files found on Basit’s laptop, he and Mohammed decided to have five men plant bombs on aircraft bound from Asia to the U.S. – a dozen jumbo jets in total, with at least three hundred people on each plane. They tested a small version of the device in a Manila movie theatre, and it worked, blowing up an empty seat. Not long afterward, they tried a slightly bigger one aboard a Philippines Airlines flight from Manila to Tokyo, with a stop in the Philippine island of Cebu. Basit boarded the flight in Manila, set the timer, and planted the device beneath a seat. Then he got off the plane in Cebu. The bomb went off as scheduled on the next leg of the flight, killing a Japanese businessman and nearly downing the aircraft, which managed to land with a hole in its fuselage.
Basit and Mohammed began their final preparations. They brought Murad in from the Gulf. He was not particularly surprised to see Basit’s apartment full of bomb-making materials – “chocolate” – but was very surprised to see Mohammed, whom he knew as a Pakistani businessman, at the Josefa. Mohammed wore gloves every time he visited, Murad told investigators, and no one but Basit knew his real name.
Still, the group lacked discipline. Just before New Year’s Day, Mohammed and Basit left Manila for a weekend, saying they were going scuba diving. Not long after Basit returned, he accidentally ignited a small chemical fire in the apartment, which led police to discover the bomb-making materials. It took two police vans to haul the evidence away: cotton batting, Bibles, cassocks, pipes, chemicals, a small case of condoms, watches. Murad told investigators that he and Basit had slept until noon that day and gone shopping at a mall in the afternoon before returning to build bombs. Murad was arrested the night of the fire, Basit a month afterward in Pakistan, and Shah later in Malaysia. The only one who got away was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Mohammed and Basit were almost indiscriminately ambitious. In addition to blowing up a dozen airliners and killing the Pope and the American President, their plots included assassinations in Pakistan and the Philippines, a bombing in Iran, and attacks on consulates in Pakistan and Thailand, among many others. In one of his Guantánamo statements, Mohammed listed thirty-one terror plots to which he was party. There doesn’t seem to have been much of a plan uniting them. Basit and Mohammed were not criminal masterminds in the conventional sense; they did not sit back and coolly plan attacks. They were interested in the killing, not the target. They murdered even in practice runs for their attacks. When Basit was captured, in February, 1995, he had a bunch of children’s toys stuffed with explosive materials. When Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan, seven years later, he had numerous new plots in various stages of execution, despite having already pulled off the biggest terror attack in history.
After Basit’s capture, investigators figured out that Mohammed had been involved in the Manila Air plot, and that he had helped fund the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. (There was a record of a wire transfer, the $660 Mohammed had contributed, into a bank account belonging to one of Basit’s co-conspirators.) He was secretly indicted in New York in early 1996, yet his name was never mentioned in either of Basit’s two lengthy trials. The government did not bring up his name, most likely because it did not want to warn him that he was being pursued. Basit did not mention him, presumably to hide his identity. All the while, Mohammed was living openly in Qatar, occasionally going to work as an engineer in the water department, and travelling around the world.
The National Security Council staff in the Clinton White House wanted to pursue Mohammed. Early in 1996, a meeting, chaired by Samuel R. Berger, the deputy national-security adviser, was scheduled to determine how to go about it. The Administration had had successes with rendition, then a new process; the arrest of Basit was among them. At the meeting, attended by deputy secretaries of the various involved agencies, Berger proposed going in to Qatar with a small team of perhaps a couple of dozen people. The C.I.A. was noncommittal. The Pentagon objected vigorously; a force of hundreds, perhaps more, would be required to assure the safety of the team. Instead, the State Department tried to negotiate with the Qataris.
Qatar was experiencing a period of unrest, which culminated in a failed coup attempt in February, 1996, and the government was uncooperative. The Qataris, the American official said, showed “a distinct reluctance to actually get involved in doing something that would . . . expose them to having violated their own rules and laws.”
It would have been difficult to proceed without Qatar’s assent. “We could not have snatched him. That would not have been either politic or possible,” the official said. “There’s always the guy who’s seen too many movies, who wants to send a commando team into a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Doha to try to snatch him.” But, he said, “I don’t think anybody ever seriously considered that a possibility.”
Eventually, Louis Freeh, then the director of the F.B.I., sent a letter to the Qatari government asking that Mohammed be arrested, and followed up by sending a small team to collect him. By the time the team arrived, Mohammed was gone; someone had apparently warned him that the Americans were coming.
There remains a significant dispute about how serious various arms of the American government were about finding Mohammed. But before August, 1998, when two U.S. embassies in East Africa were bombed, radical Islam as a global force was not perceived as an immediate threat to America. Even bin Laden was regarded by many as a relatively minor concern. There were very few people anywhere in the world who thought that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was a significant player in anything. A high-ranking Pakistani intelligence officer told me that, in 2001, his was unaware of Mohammed’s existence. In fact, for months after 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community did not know that Mohammed had been involved. According to recently declassified documents, in 2007 Michael Hayden, then the director of the C.IA., told a Senate committee that before a detainee identified Mohammed as the planner of the attacks, he “did not even appear in our chart of key Al Qaeda members and associates.”
Mohammed disappeared from view for at least a year after he fled Qatar. He was based in Karachi, but officials in Brazil, Bosnia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Pakistan say that he travelled to their countries during this time, sometimes more than once. Among the places he visited was Tora Bora, in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where he went in 1996 to meet with bin Laden and seek his sponsorship for a daring new plan. The two knew each other from their days in Peshawar, during the Afghan jihad, but according to Mohammed had not seen each other since 1989. Daniel Byman, the former 9/11 Commission member, said that Mohammed regarded the encounter as a meeting of equals. He had the cachet of being the uncle of Basit, who was regarded as a hero within radical Islam. Mohammed’s own role in the Manila plot was not widely known, though. Investigators regarded him as subordinate to Basit, his role possibly limited to raising money. This new plan would resolve any doubts about his importance. He told his interrogators that he didn’t want to join Al Qaeda, but merely sought resources to fund a spectacular attack against the United States. His visit was well timed. Bin Laden had just returned to Afghanistan, having been expelled from Sudan at America’s insistence. In the seven years since Al Qaeda began in Peshawar, he had greatly expanded the organization’s scope and ambition, and he was now preparing a fatwa that declared war against the United States.
Mohammed’s initial proposal was to hijack a single airplane and crash it, as Abdul Murad had first suggested, into C.I.A. headquarters. Bin Laden dismissed this target as inconsequential. So Mohammed proposed hijacking ten airliners, five from each coast of the United States. The plotters would crash nine of them, and Mohammed would triumphantly land the tenth, disembark, and give a speech explaining what he had done and why. Bin Laden thought that the plan was too complicated. It was not until the spring of 1999 that he approved a somewhat less ambitious proposal: the 9/11 plan.
The idea was distinguished largely by its simplicity. It required pilots, and teams of men able to overwhelm defenseless air crews. It required money and the ability to move it around the globe. And it required willing suicide bombers of whom, Mohammed has said, there was a surplus. By far the biggest difficulty was finding volunteers who could legally enter the United States. In two years, Mohammed was able to insert just nineteen men into the plot.
The two principals Mohamed Atta, the lead pilot, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Atta’s roommate in Hamburg came to Mohammed almost by accident. Neither had any known previous inclination toward terrorism. They were devout young men who had gone to Afghanistan as a first step in volunteering their efforts to the cause. They and two other Arab students from Hamburg happened to arrive in Afghanistan at precisely the time Al Qaeda needed men who could train to become pilots.
Atta was a finicky, dour man whose chief attributes were obedience and a capacity for detail. He held a part-time job as a draftsman for an urban-planning firm in Hamburg, where he reproduced city plans precisely; his boss described him as “a drawing slave.” Bin al-Shibh was an affable layabout who rarely held a job for more than a few weeks and found university study not worth his effort. A man who knew them both in Hamburg said later that he would happily have testified against Atta in a trial but never against bin al-Shibh. “Omar,” he said, using bin al-Shibh’s nickname, “was cool.” Atta went to the United States in June, 2000. Bin al-Shibh remained in Germany because he could not get a U.S. visa; the American immigration system viewed him as a likely economic migrant.
Mohammed was a hands-off manager; he spent most of his time trying to recruit suitable volunteers, and, once he had done so, gave them instructions and expected them to perform. He delegated the details of the plot which flights, what day, the makeup of the hit teams to Atta, who communicated his decisions to bin al-Shibh, mainly through coded e-mail exchanges and Internet chat rooms. Bin al-Shibh then relayed the information to Mohammed. While the pilots were being trained, Mohammed continued searching for men to join them in the United States. Most of those he found were Saudis who, like the pilots, had gone to Afghanistan to volunteer, and carried passports that allowed them easy access to the U.S.
Mohammed told investigators that bin Laden urged him several times to hurry up the attacks. He refused, waiting until the summer of 2001, when Atta told him the attack teams were set; in the meantime, he insulated the hijackers from bin Laden’s impatience. He also allowed Atta to overrule bin Laden’s choice of the White House as one of the targets Atta thought it was too difficult a target and substituted the Capitol.
During the planning of the attacks, Mohammed spent most of his time in Pakistan, remaining largely separate from the Al Qaeda leadership as he continued to organize plots and local terror cells around the world. He recruited people he had known from the Afghan training camps to form small organizations in their areas. U.S. investigators had no hint of Mohammed’s deepening involvement with Al Qaeda. They wanted him for his association with the Manila plot; that was cause enough to land him on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted list, with a two-million-dollar reward. They tracked him, as they tracked bin Laden, but never put the two together.
Mohammed said that several dozen recruits and associates stayed at his Karachi apartment. One man was there for a two-week training course that ended just before September 11th. Recruits have described the instruction they received as basic how to use the Yellow Pages, Internet chat rooms, and travel agencies. Mohammed taught them a code to use in their e-mails in which each digit in a telephone number was converted so that the original digit and the coded one added up to ten; for example, Mohammed’s Karachi cell-phone number, 92 300 922 388, became 18 700 188 722. He gave them simple word codes: a “wedding” was an explosion, “market” was Malaysia, “souk” was Singapore, “terminal” stood for Indonesia, and “hotel” for the Philippines. Thus, “planning a wedding at the hotel” would be planting a bomb in Manila. He received notes at various e-mail accounts, including email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. (His password was “hotmail.”) Mohammed refused to respond to e-mail that didn’t follow the proper codes.
In the summer of 2001, word began to leak out of Afghanistan that Mohammed or Mukhtar, “the chosen one,” as he was known within Al Qaeda was planning something big. As the former C.I.A. director George Tenet put it, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, “The system was blinking red.” But, up until the moment of the hijackings on 9/11, nothing illegal had occurred. That morning, nineteen young Arab men boarded four commercial airliners in much the way tens of thousands of other men, women, and children did.
Al Qaeda had called its most important operatives back to Afghanistan, to protect them. In late August, Mohammed travelled to Afghanistan to inform bin Laden personally of the date of the attacks, then returned to Pakistan. According to a memoir by the former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Mohammed watched news reports of the attacks at an Internet café in Karachi. When the first plane hit the first target, the World Trade Center, a celebration commenced. Bin al-Shibh, who, according to Musharraf, was with Mohammed, told Yosri Fouda that men in their company shouted “God is great!” and wept with joy.
Though Mohammed stayed physically separate from Al Qaeda’s leadership, he became the organization’s effective head of operations, with bin Laden acting primarily as financier. In the days immediately following the attacks, Mohammed, assuming that communications were being monitored, employed donkeys to carry messages in and out of Afghanistan. He used an A.T.M. card six times in Karachi, presumably retrieving the hijack teams’ unused money. Mohammed had made video and tape recordings of the attacks, and he began to distribute them. He was in telephone contact with men plotting to bomb a synagogue in Tunisia. When the United States launched its war in Afghanistan, Mohammed went to Tora Bora to direct the resettlement of scores of Al Qaeda members and their families. Then he returned to Karachi and resumed his work.
It was in Karachi that Mohammed encountered Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter. Pearl, who was based in India, went to Karachi in January, 2002, to research a story on Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” and his connections to Pakistani jihadi networks. Pearl arranged a meeting with someone he thought was a member of the networks but was instead kidnapped, held for ransom, and killed. A video posted on the Internet showed Pearl’s severed head held by Mohammed’s hand, identifiable by what a Filipino investigator once characterized as the “extra meat” on his ring finger.
Pakistani investigators now think that Mohammed had nothing to do with the initial kidnapping; that was the work of what one investigator called a “mishmash” of local jihadis. Some of the jihadis came from the Kashmir struggle. Some, such as Omar Saeed Sheikh, who has been convicted of planning the kidnapping, were experienced both in Kashmir and in kidnap-and-ransom operations. Western media latched on to the story, and the kidnappers, who apparently did not anticipate the attention that the crime would attract, had no idea how to resolve the situation. This is where Mohammed is believed to have stepped in. “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed got to know of the plot, which he had done nothing to serve,” a senior Pakistani police official said. “He got to know of it through the grapevine. And so he said, ‘This is great, a chance to do something spectacular.’ So he basically bought Daniel Pearl from them. He gave them fifty grand, bought Daniel Pearl, got a guy with a camera, and the rest is history.” As in the plot against the Pope, he had no personal grudge against Pearl; it just happened that he was a Jewish American, and available to him.
In the spring of 2003, almost a full decade after Mohammed came to the notice of terrorism investigators, heavily armed Pakistani police crashed in on him in the middle of the night, in a walled compound in Rawalpindi, the home city of Pakistan’s military. His capture likely owed something to the technical capacities of American surveillance, but the big break came by the oldest of means: betrayal. The U.S. had offered a twenty-five-million-dollar reward for Mohammed’s capture, and a cousin tipped off authorities about his location. The man, an Iranian Baluchi, has been resettled with his money, presumably in the United States. “Even his family is his enemy now,” a Pakistani relative said of the cousin. “His father says, ‘If he returns, we will kill him.’ ”
It is an article of faith among Mohammed’s family members, several of whom have been arrested on suspicion of cooperating with him, that he has been falsely accused. “Just think about it,” the cousin said. “How can it be that such a big tower, merely by being hit by a plane, it gets demolished? At the very least, something has been placed at its foundation which would cause the collapse. This was a Jewish conspiracy.” Relatives have gone to court to reverse what they allege was Pakistan’s illegal extradition of Mohammed to American authorities, but his wife has asked them to stop their efforts. The cousin said she told him, “It’s in God’s hands.”
“We tend to think of jihad and Islamism and associate it with Afghanistan. It’s really a Pakistan-based movement,” Daniel Byman, of Georgetown, said. “The focus is on Afghanistan, but all the things that make this movement hum are in Pakistan.”
Mohammed thrived in the chaos of Pakistan, and that chaos still exists. The melding of the various jihadi groups with Al Qaeda and the Taliban has resulted in an indecipherable mess. For example, one of the premier field commanders for Al Qaeda in Pakistan is Ilyas Kashmiri. In Kashmir, he was sponsored by the Pakistani government; now he is fighting it. In some sense, most of the terrorists who have attacked the West in the name of Islam Mohammed, Basit, Richard Reid, Faisal Shahzad (the Times Square bomber), the 2005 London train bombers, Mir Aimal Kasi (the 1993 killings of C.I.A. personnel in Langley, Virginia)are sparks thrown off by the fires in Pakistan. Byman and others think that this has implications that haven’t been given due consideration in the current war in Afghanistan. If the foundations of the movement are in Pakistan, and if Mohammed was the driving force behind the 9/11 attacks, what does that say about the nature of Al Qaeda? Was it the sophisticated, global, corporate enterprise so often depicted? Or is it better represented by what has come to be called the “bunch of guys” theory, put forward most persuasively by Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former C.I.A. officer? Is it a small core of leaders guiding barely trained men who join and leave the cause for unpredictable reasons?
Bin Laden’s main contributions to 9/11 were money and volunteers. Almost all the money was for living and travel expenses. This was not inconsequential, but terrorism is cheap. It doesn’t require huge numbers of people, elaborate infrastructure, or great technical skill. That is its advantage over the weapons and defenses of a modern, sophisticated state.
Mohammed’s letters home from Guantánamo are accompanied by identification forms, in which the Red Cross asks that the correspondent provide basic biographical information. In the first of the letters, dated December 15, 2006, Mohammed dutifully filled in the details, writing out his full name and listing Guantánamo Bay as his place of residence. In the most recent letter, he listed his residence as “Gitmo,” using the military nickname for Guantánamo Bay. In the space for his own name, he used the initials by which he is universally known within the United States intelligence community, K.S.M. Mohammed, whose life has been marked by movement and adaptation, after seven years in American custody seems to have adapted. He has proved to be a forceful and at times vexing presence. He says that he lied when he was tortured during interrogations and told the truth at other times. He has seemed almost gleeful about the prospect of American investigators chasing his lies around the world.
The “high-value detainees” at Guantánamo live in a maximum-security prison, Camp 7, which is off limits to almost everyone. They are held in isolation for up to twenty-two hours a day; as military prosecutors put it in arguing against allowing defense attorneys to visit the camp, each prisoner “has available to him outdoor recreation, socialization with a recreation partner, the ability to exercise, access to library books twice a week, the privilege of watching movies, and may meet with his attorneys upon request should he so choose. If the accused takes advantage of all the privileges offered to him, he would have a minimum of two hours a day outside his cell.”
In the hearing room, Mohammed and his four co-defendants sit in separate rows of tables, with Mohammed always in the front row. Seated with them are their translators, lawyers, and sometimes paralegals as many as six people in a row. Mohammed does not always rely on a translator in court and has fired his lawyers, so he is sometimes seated at his table with just one other person, a civilian lawyer who serves as his personal representative but not his defense counsel. (This didn’t stop Mohammed from writing a critical memo to the judge, in 2008, titled “Better Translation.”)
His behavior in court has sometimes been bizarre. Once, he stood during the proceedings to sing Koranic verses aloud. After the judge repeatedly told him that he was out of order and had to stop, he suddenly blurted “O.K.” and quit, provoking laughter throughout the courtroom. J. D. Gordon, a former spokesman for the Department of Defense who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy, witnessed nearly all of Mohammed’s court appearances. “At times, it’s almost like theatre,” Gordon said. “He switches back and forth from very serious and devout to kind of a clown. I think he does that deliberately to draw people in, to charm them in some way, or to influence them. It’s all calculated.”
His co-defendants nervously look to Mohammed for guidance. When he decided to defend himself, he attempted to have the others do the same. One, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, chose to continue with his attorney. Mohammed turned to Hawsawi and, according to Gordon, noted that his lawyer was in the American military, and then asked Hawsawi if he was in the U.S. Army, too. Hawsawi appeared shaken.
When another defendant, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, initially refused to appear before tribunals at all, it was not military prosecutors or lawyers who changed his mind but Mohammed. He organized what he called a Shura council to coordinate his defense with those of his fellow-accused. He dealt politely with his defense lawyers, although he is prone to giving lectures in court. According to the Times, he wrote poems to the wife of one of his interrogators. He has at times captivated interrogators with what amount to master classes in the practice of contemporary terrorism.
It’s likely that, whenever and wherever Khalid Sheikh Mohammed goes on trial, the answers he provides to the enduring questions about 9/11 will be deeply unsatisfying. His plots were scattered, frenetic, even feral; they had an almost random quality. Mohammed, almost certainly, will talk. He likes to talk. It is less certain that he will have anything to say. The mastermind of 9/11 seems to have had no overriding grand strategy, or, really, any strategy at all.