Who was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and how did this ‘personification of sheer evil’ help Osama bin Laden plan deadliest terror attacks in US history?
by Joel C. Rosenberg | September 15, 2022
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (Photo: Abaca Press via Reuters)
On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (aka “KSM”) was arrested in a daring raid near Islamabad, Pakistan.
The operation was led by CIA and Pakistani operatives who had been hunting KSM for years.
It constituted the capture of the highest-ranking al Qaeda leader to that point.
After all, KSM was al Qaeda’s chief of external operations and the co-mastermind with bin Laden of the 9/11 attacks.
He was also the personification of sheer evil.
GETTING INTO THE MIND OF KSM
After being interrogated extensively by U.S. officials on multiple occasions over many months, KSM was eventually brought back to the United States to face a military tribunal at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Eventually, previously classified notes of his interrogations were made available to the public.
So was the transcript of his interrogation by military prosecutors at Gitmo.
For me, reading both documents felt like sitting in the room with Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler, men clearly plagued by demons.
It was also a chilling window into the mind and heart of Osama bin Laden, who approved everything KSM did.
When I say evil, what I mean is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed expressed absolutely no remorse for the fact that he has personally helped murder, maim, and injure well over ten thousand people in his lifetime.
To the contrary, he was proud of it.
He eagerly described all of the terrorist actions against innocent civilians that he planned and executed, up to and including the 9/11 attacks, as well as those following.
At one point, he even boasted about cutting off the head of a Wall Street Journal reporter he had taken hostage in the months following 9/11.
“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” he told U.S. officials without shame. “For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”
If this is not evil, I do not know what is.
WHERE DID KSM COME FROM?
One thing that certainly emerged from KSM’s testimony was a clear and deeply disturbing portrait of the planning process that led up to Sept. 11, 2001, and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
The story really begins back in 1996, around the time bin Laden issued his declaration of war against the U.S.
KSM said he met with the Sunni terror master in the caves of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, and laid out his dream.
He wanted enough men and money to hijack ten planes inside—not en route to—the U.S. and unleash them on kamikaze missions of murder and terror into American cities.
Having just met the man, bin Laden was hardly convinced KSM could pull off such a mission, but he was intrigued.
And the more he learned about KSM, the more he liked.
Born in Pakistan sometime in 1964 or 1965, KSM was raised in Kuwait in a devout, fundamentalist family.
He became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood at the age of 16 and, much like bin Laden, became convinced at an early age that violent jihad was the only way to restore the glory of the Muslim world.
KSM had fought with the mujahadeen in Afghanistan.
He had fought against the West with the jihadist forces in Bosnia.
And he had helped raise money for both causes.
But there was something else about this radical that drew bin Laden to him: he had lived in the United States and understood how to operate in an “infidel” environment.
According to The 9/11 Commission Report, after graduating from high school, “KSM left Kuwait to enroll at Chowan College, a small Baptist school in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. After a semester at Chowan, KSM transferred to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. . . . KSM earned a degree in mechanical engineering in December 1986.”
Bin Laden also appreciated KSM’s fanatical desire to kill as many Americans as possible.
KSM and his nephew, Ramzi Yousef—three years his junior—had helped plot and execute the truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
So, bin Laden agreed to let KSM begin researching such an operation in more detail, but only if he would help al Qaeda design and launch other high-profile terrorist attacks; an assignment KSM accepted with relish.
Over the next few years, he developed “Operation Bojinka,” a plot to hijack as many as a dozen jumbo jets in the Philippines and throughout Asia and then blow them up over the Pacific en route to the U.S.
While the operation was foiled by police in Manila before it could be executed, it did give KSM extensive insight into how best to get men and weapons on board planes and how to handle many of the logistical questions that were bound to come up.
Meanwhile, he successfully masterminded the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa.
This impressed bin Laden and convinced him that KSM was not only serious about killing Americans but tactically savvy enough to pull off a complex operation in multiple cities on another continent.
“I SWEAR ALLEGIANCE TO YOU FOR JIHAD”
In April of 1999, KSM—who typically operated not in Afghanistan but out of Pakistan, Kuwait, or other parts of the Middle East and Asia—was back in the caves of Tora Bora, meeting with bin Laden and trying to persuade him and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri to embrace his audacious scenario.
This time, bin Laden gave the green light, saying he believed the plot could work and that KSM had the organization’s blessing and financial backing.
Thrilled, KSM set out to recruit the right men—that is, those capable of successfully entering the U.S. and living there undetected, capable of keeping their mouths shut, capable of training for a mission that they would not be told the final details of until the last possible moment, and—perhaps most important—capable of murder.
KSM later told interrogators that he required each man selected to pledge the following oath of loyalty to bin Laden personally: “I swear allegiance to you, to listen and obey, in good times and bad, and to accept the consequences myself; I swear allegiance to you for jihad, and to listen and obey, and to die in the cause of God.”
File photo dated May 1, 1998 of Osama bin Laden, with Ayman al-Zawahiri, his right hand man in Jamkha, Afghanistan. (Photo: Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM)
HOW BIN LADEN AND KSM PLANNED THE 9/11 ATTACKS
By early 2001, the plot had advanced to the point where KSM was ready to review a list of targets with bin Laden.
The emir, or prince, of al Qaeda insisted they hit the two World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol, at a minimum.
But bin Laden also gave KSM latitude to hit other targets as well, including the White House, the Sears Tower in Chicago and a foreign embassy of his choosing in Washington, D.C.
When Mohammed Atta (one of the Egyptian cell commanders who would eventually hijack American Airlines Flight 11 and fly it into one of the World Trade Center towers) suggested hitting a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, bin Laden agreed to add the target to the list.
“After the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center, I decided that explosives and bombs could be problematic, and so I focused on using airplanes as weapons,” KSM told interrogators. “The most attractive targets were high buildings, both for their relative ease of targeting as well as for the symbolic impact. Bin Laden expressed his desire to simultaneously hit the Pentagon, the White House, and the U.S. Capitol building.”
Bin Laden personally and specifically chose the cell leaders to carry out the operation.
But it was KSM whom bin Laden trusted for all the operational details.
It was KSM, for example, who designed the rigorous training regime each cell member would undergo, including basic physical conditioning, English lessons, and instruction in how to conduct a hijacking, how to disarm an air marshal, and the use of explosives.
The men also were required to butcher sheep and camels as practice for killing anyone who got in their way on board the planes.
It was KSM who gave the cell commanders the cash they needed for the mission.
It was KSM who helped his men acquire “clean” passports without Pakistani and Afghan stamps.
He told them where in the U.S. to live.
He told them what to study (more English and how to fly a jumbo jet).
He forbade them to speak to other Muslims while in the U.S., lest they be tempted to confide their plans to someone they might consider a kindred spirit.
He told them how to communicate with headquarters.
Everything was “compartmentalized.”
Only KSM, bin Laden, and a handful of other al Qaeda senior operatives knew all the details.
Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks (Photo: Michael Foran/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons)
BIN LADEN ALSO WANTED TO ASSASSINATE AN ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER
As the time of the operation approached, KSM said bin Laden kept pushing for faster action.
Three times bin Laden pressured him to launch sooner, but KSM insisted they were not quite ready.
That summer, for example, bin Laden heard that Israeli Prime Pinister Ariel Sharon was heading to the White House.
He urged KSM to move fast in order to kill Sharon and then U.S. President George Bush and their top advisors at the same time.
But again, KSM resisted, saying his team was close but still not ready to strike.
Moreover, KSM believed the final decision on choosing a strike date should be in the hands of the senior cell commander to whom he had given this authority.
Thus, it was not until August that KSM himself finally learned of the date of the operation.
He immediately informed bin Laden.
But he was horrified that as the date of the attack approached, bin Laden began telling colleagues and even high-level visitors to his camp in the mountains of Afghanistan that something big was coming.
KSM urged bin Laden not to say anything more or risk compromising the operation.
The 9/11 attacks were far more successful than either bin Laden or KSM had imagined.
“We sat down to calculate the amount of losses within the enemy and we expected the number to be those inside the plane, and for the [World Trade Center] towers, the number of people that the plane would actually hit,” bin Laden told friends at a November 2001 dinner in Kandahar that was recorded on someone’s personal video camera and later recovered by U.S. intelligence. “I was the most optimistic of all because of my expertise in this profession and in this business. I said the fuel on the plane would melt the iron and the iron would lose its properties.”
Bin Laden said he had predicted that the building would be destroyed from the point of impact upward.
But the total destruction of the buildings, he said, “was a lot more than we expected.”
Bin Laden formally claimed credit for the 9/11 attacks in 2003 during an 18-minute video released to the Al Jazeera news network.
In the tape, the al Qaeda leader said he decided “we should destroy towers in America” because “we are a free people . . . and we want to regain the freedom of our nation.”
KSM later shed more light on his and bin Laden’s motivations.
According to the notes of his interrogations, “Sheikh Mohammed said that the purpose of the attack on the Twin Towers was to ‘wake the American people up.’ Sheikh Mohammed said that if the target would have been strictly military or government, the American people would not focus on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people and America’s self-serving foreign policy that corrupts Arab governments and leads to further exploitation of the Arab [and] Muslim peoples.”
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