Portrait of 9/11 'Jackal' emerges as he awaits trial

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has never fit in the mold of other al-Qaeda operatives

brought to book Attorney General Eric H Holder Jr in Washington announcing on Saturday that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would be prosecuted in New York. Inset: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. NYT

Not long after he was rousted from bed and seized in a predawn raid in Pakistan in March 2003, Khalid Shaikh 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 CIA jails in Europe and an American military prison in Cuba, Mohammed is finally likely to get his wish. He will be the most senior leader of al-Qaeda to date held to account for the mass murder of nearly 3,000 Americans, facing trial in 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 mold of Qaeda chieftain. He has little use for the high-minded moralising of some of his associates, and for years before the Sept 11 attacks, he refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Osama — 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 US.

The last time Mohammed had such a platform was at a military hearing at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he delivered a rambling exposition on a number of topics, including American history, citing Manifest Destiny and the Revolutionary War.

“Because 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 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 Osama’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 US for his education. After attending secondary school in Kuwait, Mohammed was accepted at Chowan College, a 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 earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1986.

Not long after graduation, he travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the mujahedeen fighters, who at the time were the beneficiaries of millions of dollars from the CIA in the fight against Soviet troops.
His experience in Afghanistan gave him a first taste of the battle against the West that would come to consume his life.

Big plans

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 Centre 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 American counterterrorism experts began to understand Mohammed’s significance to the cause of global jihad, after a thwarted plot to blow up 12 American commercial aircraft in midair. The so-called Bojinka plot, hatched in a Manila apartment with his nephew, the WTCr bomber Ramzi Yousef, was Mohammed’s first inspiration for using airliners as ballistic missiles against civilian targets, according to the 9/11 commission report and recently declassified CIA documents.

In 1996, Mohammed travelled to Afghanistan to sell Osama on an idea: simultaneously hijacking 10 aircraft and flying them into different prominent civilian targets in the United States. He would be on the one plane not to crash, and after the plane landed would emerge and deliver a speech condemning American policy on Israel.

Osama 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 September 11 attacks.

Some terrorism experts said Osama and Mohammed had as much a rivalry as a partnership. For instance, Mohammed dismissed the training Osama 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.

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 jealously guarded the details of the plot, telling only Osama, one of his advisers and a few of the senior hijackers.

Even as he planned the attacks, he never committed himself to al-Qaeda by pledging an oath, called ‘bayat’, to Osama. He was determined to keep his independence from the Qaeda leader, and he later bragged to his CIA captors that he had disobeyed Osama on several occasions.

He resisted constant pressure from Osama to launch the attacks early, and twice in 2001 told him the hijacking teams were not ready when Osama ordered that the attacks begin.

Yet for all his professed wisdom about the US, Mohammed later admitted that he had completely misjudged what the American response to the September 11 attacks would be. He did not expect the American military campaign in Afghanistan, and he did not anticipate the relentless hunt for al-Qaeda leaders throughout South Asia and West Asia.

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