Four months after retaliation for the 9/11 attacks he masterminded brought devastation to al Qaeda’s haven in Afghanistan, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was living openly in neighboring Karachi, Pakistan and taking leisurely walks with his new prize recruit – a young computer geek from Maryland who wanted to join the jihad.
They talked about how Majid Shoukat Khan might poison water wells in the United States and blow up his family’s gas station. Mohammed was especially enthusiastic about using his young associate to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, perhaps by sneaking a suicide bomber into Khan’s planned arranged wedding to the daughter of a prominent Pakistani general.
The marriage never happened, and another Musharraf assassination plot fizzled, but the two continued to meet and scheme for more than a year. Mohammed’s patient grooming of his young associate ultimately paid off: Khan delivered $50,000 to al Qaeda associates for deadly attacks in Indonesia. And during trips back to the United States, he helped other al Qaeda operatives that Mohammed had dispatched on secret missions.
Those plots were publicly disclosed by the U.S. government several months ago as part of its effort to bring charges against Mohammed and four other men for their alleged roles in the 9/11 attacks.
Mohammed, his nephew Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Walid bin Attash appeared in court for arraignment on Saturday in the U.S.-run detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The charges might make them the first defendants to be executed by the U.S. military in more than 50 years.
Mohammed’s previously undisclosed relationship with Khan is just one of many facets of his life that are expected to come to light during the long-awaited military commission process. Many of them are sharply at odds with the public perception of Mohammed that has emerged in the nine years since the Pakistani militant was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
While Mohammed was locked away in secret CIA prisons and then in Guantanamo, it was Osama bin Laden’s name that became synonymous with the 9/11 attacks and with al Qaeda’s global terror campaign.
But bin Laden lived in a bubble, secure and well protected by acolytes. It was Mohammed who went out into the world and got things done.
Mohammed was the one who devised the 9/11 plot, persuaded bin Laden to let him do it and then orchestrated it from beginning to end.
“He is the ultimate terrorist. He masterminded the deaths of almost 3,000 people. No other terrorist act in the history of the world comes close,’’ said Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer in Pakistan, a current U.S. counterterrorism consultant, a clinical psychiatrist and the author of Understanding Terror Networks.
“One KSM is much more dangerous than hundreds of the others,’’ said Sageman, who has evaluated about 500 murderers and 400 al Qaeda operatives during a career devoted to getting inside the minds of terrorists. He said bin Laden played a supporting role, providing money and manpower to Mohammed for the 9/11 plot. “But it’s really carrying it out and executing it. And that’s where KSM is different.’’
Mohammed’s terror spree, which he has proudly admitted, began in the early 1990s, when he helped finance the first attack on the World Trade Center spearheaded by his nephew, Ramzi Yousef.
From there it was on to the Philippines, where the two hatched plots to assassinate the pope and President Bill Clinton and to blow up as many as a dozen packed jetliners as they flew across the Atlantic to the United States.
A fluke fire thwarted those plans, and all but one of the plotters were captured. A team of FBI agents began focusing on the one escapee – Mohammed – but he soon narrowly escaped again, this time in Qatar.
Mohammed was only getting started. He was the one, not bin Laden, who traveled the world as a kind of terrorist missionary, establishing alliances and creating a network of cells and lieutenants that in some cases remains today. It was Mohammed who, much like a baseball scout, personally recruited young jihadist prospects, many of them Westerners like Khan. He tapped into their grievances and launched them on dozens of plots and attacks – while, during some, staying a step ahead of the largest-ever criminal manhunt after his role in 9/11 was revealed.
Some were more personal, like beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. And Mohammed’s importance went far beyond individual plots. He was the one who presciently engineered an underground railroad that smuggled key al Qaeda fighters into Pakistan after 9/11 and set up a network of safe houses for them with the help of his friends in Karachi’s vast criminal underworld. Some of Mohammed’s protégé sleeper agents – no one knows how many – are still on the loose and waiting, including former south Florida resident Adnan el-Shukrijumah.
Associates, and even those who have investigated, interrogated and observed him, say his intelligence borders on genius and that he is charismatic enough to recruit impressionable young Westerners to die for his cause, often in just a few short meetings.
Mohammed talked Jack Roche, a British-born citizen of Australia, into returning home to attack U.S. and Israeli targets. He got cold feet. So did Saajid Badat, one of two “shoe bombers’’ dispatched by Mohammed to detonate explosives-laden shoes while on international flights in late 2001. The other, Richard Reid, was thwarted in midair. “Dirty bomber’’ Jose Padilla was arrested when he landed in Chicago.
Mohammed’s grooming of German national Christian Ganczarski led to a deadly attack on a synagogue in Djerba. Dhiren Barot was one of several sleepers Mohammed dispatched to case Wall Street and other U.S. financial targets for attack. Shukrijumah, who, like Mohammed, was fluent in English, Arabic and Pakistani Urdu, was one of his favorites and a link to Maryland protégé Majid Khan. He is now believed to be one of al Qaeda’s highest-ranking chieftains.
Khan’s plea agreement is considered a major victory for the hybrid military-Justice Department prosecution team. They plan to portray Mohammed as a ruthless megalomaniac who would stop at nothing in his war against the West.
In all, dozens of witnesses have been lined up to testify against Mohammed and the others. The witness list ranges from terror associates to FBI agents who tracked them and the extensive money trail that tied them to the 19 hijackers on the ground in the United States.
This was the second arraignment for Mohammed and the others, who were first charged and arraigned under the Bush administration’s military commission system.
In the first round of proceedings, Mohammed indicated that he wanted to plead guilty so that he can be martyred. One of his defense lawyers, David Nevin, said recently that he could not discuss particulars of the case, including how Mohammed will plead and whether he will want to represent himself.
U.S. officials have not commented on whether the trial will, in addition to 9/11, delve into other plots and attacks that Mohammed confessed to while in CIA and military custody.
That detail could prove important because of the widespread belief among U.S. counterterrorism officials that Mohammed made up a lot of the confessions, either to stop the coercive interrogations or to protect other operatives who were plotting and launching attacks. KSM himself said many were made simply to stop the “torture.’’
“Did he really do all of them?’’ asked defense lawyer Edward B. MacMahon, Jr., who formerly represented bin Attash. “And if not, who did?’’
PHOTO: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is shown in this file photograph during his arrest on March 1, 2003. REUTERS/Courtesy U.S.News & World Report/Files