There is at least one thing upon which Barack Obama and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
agree – they both want the self-confessed architect of the terror atrocities of
Sept 11 2001 to have his day in court.
It is 9 years this week since al-Qaeda's mastermind of mass murder was dragged
from his hideout in Pakistan as a dishevelled wild-haired scowling figure in a
scruffy white T-shirt.
He disappeared for three years into the world of secret overseas CIA prisons,
interrogated repeatedly by American agents desperate to learn if another attack
of 9/11 proportions was in the works. Those interrogations, it would later
emerge, included 183 episodes of waterboarding in which he was subjected to
And for the last 6 years, when he been held at the American prison camp of
Guantánamo Bay, it often seemed that he would never answer in court for crimes
to which he boastfully admits.
But this year, if the Obama administration has its way, the 1st trial for the
worst terrorist atrocity in history will finally be staged in a
specially-constructed cavernous military courtroom on the US base in southern
Mohammed and 4 alleged co-accused will face the death penalty for a raft of
conspiracy and terrorism charges and 2,973 counts of murder – one for each
victim in the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and the 4 hijacked planes.
What is already being described as the "trial of the century" moved a
significant step closer last week when a former accomplice of Mohammed struck a
plea deal with military prosecutors at Guantánamo to testify against his
Majid Khan, 32, a Pakistani educated in the US, admitted that he was
hand-picked by Mohammed to lead a post-9/11 wave of attacks on US soil –
including a plot to blow up underground fuel storage tanks and poison water
reservoirs Khan said he also worked for Mohammed on other terror projects,
delivering $50,000 to fund the car bombing of a Jakarta hotel that killed 11
people in 2003 and a plan to assassinate then Pakistani President Pervez
Col Morris Davis, a former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo, said that
striking deals with operatives such as Khan to build a case against Mohammed
was similar to the use of Mafia supergrasses to bring down crime dons.
"It's like a Mob case where you want to start at the bottom and make deals with
the smaller fish so that you can work your way up the food chain and get the
top guys," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
For more than a decade, America has struggled with how to bring to justice the
Islamic radicals who conducted a wave of terror attacks across the globe in the
early years of this century – most infamously, the Sept 2001 strikes on New
York and Washington.
In the process, the administration of George W Bush created the Guantánamo Bay
complex and a network of clandestine CIA prisons across the world, ran "ghost"
rendition flights that secretly moved detainees between those "dark sites", and
authorised "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding that were
widely denounced as torture elsewhere.
There were senior Bush officials who saw no need for any trials, preferring
indefinite detention of "bad guys". In the end, a cumbersome and controversial
system of military commissions was established to prosecute terror suspects
accused of committing war crimes as enemy combatants, but the troubled legal
process almost ground to a halt.
Then just a week after taking office and with great fanfare, President Obama
signed an executive order to close Guantánamo, meeting a campaign promise to
put suspects on trial in federal courts. His justice officials outlined plans
to try Mohammed and four co-accused in lower Manhattan, only a few streets from
the Ground Zero site where the World Trade Centre once stood.
But that pledge imploded after Republicans in Congress blocked the transfer of
the terror suspects to the US amid fears for the security concerns of staging
such high-profile trials in America.
Mr Obama is now determined to prosecute Mohammed and his co-conspirators under
the military tribunal system he once denounced as an affront to American
traditions of justice. And as Osama bin Laden is now dead, that means perhaps
the world's most notorious living mass killer will finally face justice.
Born in Kuwait to Pakistani parents in 1964 or 1965 (reports differ), Mohammed
joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager, studied mechanical engineering in
the US at a North Carolina agriculture college and cut his teeth as a jihadist
in Afghanistan fighting Soviet forces. It was also there in 1987 that he first
met a Saudi radical called Osama bin Laden.
Terror and targeting the Twin Towers was something of a family affair as his
Mohammed's nephew Ramzi Yousef parked the 1993 World Trade Centre truck bomb
that killed 6.
The 2 teamed up a year later for an unsuccessful plot to blow up multiple
planes flying between the US and Asia. But Mohammed had hit on theme and after
he returned to Afghanistan in 1996, he renewed his links with bin Laden and
outlined his a plan that would develop into the quadruple hijackings of 2001.
In late 1998 or early 1999, bin Laden approved the project and Mohammed took
part in the selection of targets and helped arrange for the hijackers to travel
to America where the cell leaders to took flying simulator lessons before
seizing the planes on Sept 11.
Buoyed by the spectacular success of the plot, Mohammed took on the role of
chief al-Qaeda terror strategist with a global reach. He dispatched Richard
Reid, the British "shoe bomber", to try and blow up a plane from Paris to
Miami, and coordinated terror plots in Pakistan and Bali.
In perhaps his most grisly operation, he has admitted beheading Daniel Pearl,
an American journalist captured while investigating the al-Qaeda network in
Karachi. The FBI has since used photographic analysis to match a bulging vein
in Mohammed's hand with the hooded figure filmed conducting the decapitation in
the video released by the killers.
The hunt for Mohammed, renowned for a lavish lifestyle and multiple aliases,
obsessed the US intelligence establishment which feared that he could stage
another attack on the scale of 9/11.
But for nearly 18 months, the trail was cold in the search for al-Qaeda's
hierarchy. Then came the breakthrough when he was captured in March 2003 in
Rawalpindi after a tip-off from an informant who was rewarded with a $25
million bounty and a new life and identity in the US.
Home for Mohammed now is a steamy tropical 45-sq-mile pocket of US military
territory in communist Cuba, leased by Washington after the end of the
Spanish-American War in 1903.
The remaining 171 detainees at Guantánamo spend several hours a days in the
Caribbean sun, receive Arabic newspapers and DVD and eat an exclusively halal
Middle Eastern diet, with dates, olive oil and honey provided daily and pita
bread baked on site. The shelves of an extensive library are lined with Islamic
works and a new $750,000 football field has just been completed.
But for Mohammed, it seems the focus on the base will soon be Camp Justice,
where a hangar-like aluminium courtroom is reached through a maze of walkways
lined by dark-mesh fences and barbed wire and secured by US military guards. A
complex of air-conditioned trailers and tents provide accommodation for the
lawyers, witnesses, media and observers who attend the hearings.
His case will be heard by a presiding officer, a military lawyer who is the
equivalent of a judge, and a panel of at least four other US officers who act
as a jury. Mohammed will be represented by a tribunal-appointed military
defence lawyer, assisted by a US civilian attorney, expected to be David Nevin,
who has worked on death penalty cases since 1981.
Journalists and observers will watch proceedings from behind bullet-proof
glass, or via a live-stream at a US military intelligence base in Virginia,
following a noise and video feed, which can be cut if classified information is
The initial confessions by Mohammed were collected by waterboarding – testimony
that the Obama administration has ruled inadmissible as it was coerced.
But KSM, as he is commonly known, has also repeatedly made clear that he wants
to claim credit for his actions in plotting the Sept 11 attacks. "I was
responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z," he said, according to
Pentagon transcripts of a close-door hearing in 2007.
Nonetheless, the tribunal needs testimony untainted by allegations of torture.
So as chief prosecutor when Mohammed and other "high value detainees" were
brought to Guantánamo in 2006, Col Davis put together "clean teams" of FBI and
military law enforcement agents to re-interview detainees.
"The evidence before then had been collected from what the US government called
enhanced interrogation techniques and what most of the world calls torture. I
had honestly believed that we were committed to free and fair trials, but there
were people above me who disagreed," Col Davis said.
He quit in 2007 when he was instructed by a superior to use evidence gained
from enhanced interrogation techniques on the grounds, in the words of his
superior, that "America does not torture people".
Like Mr Obama, he would have preferred to have seen Mohammed and his cohorts
tried in a civilian court. "It's important that KSM is held accountable for his
actions and it is important the world sees that he is held accountable. The
trouble for the US is that the perception of the Guantánamo and the military
commissions is so tainted in the eyes of many."
But after suffering a humiliating rebuff to his attempts to close Guantánamo
and put Mohammed on trial in New York, the prospect of an election year
conviction has a clear political appeal for the president.
Mr Obama has already ordered the operations that killed bin Laden and Anwar
al-Awlaki, the US-born radical Yemeni preacher. By prosecuting the man who
hatched the 9/11 plot, he would further undermine Republican attempts to
portray him as weak on national security.
What is certain is that Mohammed will also seize the opportunity to deliver his
own poisonous message, as he did at an arraignment hearing in 2008.
President Bush was waging a "crusader war", he declared, and the proceedings
against him were "an inquisition, not a trial. After torturing, they transfer
us to inquisition-land in Guantánamo."
But there may be one point of agreement – the verdict and sentence. For he was
warned at that hearing that he faces execution if convicted.
In broken English, he replied: "Yes, this is what I wish, to be a martyr for a
(source: The Telegraph)