Four years ago, the United States made ready to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and four others at a military tribunal. The case against the five men, as outlined by William Shawcross in this brief but immensely useful book, was sweeping: “They were charged with terrorism, mass murder, providing material support for terrorism, conspiracy, the hijacking of planes, attacking civilian objects, causing serious bodily injury, and destroying property in violation of the laws of war. The charges included almost 3,000 individual counts of murder — one for each of the people killed in the 9/11 attacks — and listed 167 overt acts allegedly committed by the defendants in that assault.”
At his arraignment, Mohammed “seemed determined to seize responsibility for almost every well-known terrorist outrage that had occurred around the world in recent years . . . to show that he was far more important than bin Laden himself.” Later in 2008, Mohammed and the other defendants informed the military judge that “they wanted to confess and plead guilty,” because “the sooner they could be executed and become martyrs, the better.”
The court was having none of that, so the case limped along for another year until Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he was transferring it to a federal civilian court in New York City. The decision was applauded by many in Europe and on the left, but it raised legitimate apprehensions that the proceedings would be turned into a show trial by the defendants — Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash — as well as criticism that rights extended to American citizens in court are not equally applicable to foreigners charged with acts of war against the country.
There matters stood until January 2011, when President Obama reluctantly signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which effectively barred the government from transferring prisoners from Guantanamo to the United States. Three months later, Holder announced (also reluctantly) that the trial would be held before a military tribunal at Guantanamo. Precisely when the trial will begin has not been announced, but presumably it will take place sometime this year, probably it will go on for a very long time, and undoubtedly Mohammed et al. will seize every opportunity to make a gaudy propaganda show out of it.
Shawcross, a veteran British journalist and author of many well-regarded books, leaves no doubt that he favors the use of military courts in cases such as this, but he has “not sought to argue in this book that there is one single or simple way for the U.S. to bring justice to captured Islamist terrorists in this war,” rather that “the problems the U.S. government has faced since 9/11 in bringing its enemies to court are far more difficult than its critics, at home and abroad, are ever prepared to acknowledge.” He believes, though, that we have much to learn from the Nuremberg trials of 1945, in which the most prominent surviving Nazi leaders were brought to justice before a court that was at once military and fair.