For smug KSM, federal court could be perfect arena

Khalid Sheik Mohammed told the CIA that his contacts with Americans confirmed his view of the U.S. being a
Khalid Sheik Mohammed told the CIA that his contacts with Americans confirmed his view of the U.S. being a "racist" nation. (Www.muslm.net Via Associated Press)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

When two planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, Khalid Sheik Mohammed was sitting in an Internet cafe in Karachi, Pakistan, monitoring the attacks. At first, Mohammed later told CIA interrogators, he was disappointed. He said that he expected the towers to crumble immediately and that he feared they might not fall at all.

After the towers came down, Mohammed returned to a hideaway flat in the city. There, according to newly disclosed details from U.S. officials, he and a number of associates, including Ramzi Binalshibh, al-Qaeda's liaison with the Sept. 11 hijackers, gathered to watch coverage on international news channels.

Through the night in Pakistan, the men embraced repeatedly in celebration, marveling at their spectacular success and the humbling of the American giant.

More than eight years later, Mohammed, a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will soon be transferred to federal court in Manhattan, returning to a city that officials say he visited as a tourist while a student in North Carolina in the 1980s. The man widely known as KSM will arrive in New York as the most striking symbol of the Obama administration's effort to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. He is also a central figure in the debate over harsh interrogation techniques, which were used repeatedly on Mohammed in a bid to force him to divulge intelligence -- which can now be invoked at his trial.

While at Guantanamo Bay, where he has been held since September 2006, Mohammed has said he wants to be executed so that he can die a martyr. It is unclear whether he will maintain that position in U.S. District Court. But his trial will probably chart the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, from the conspiracy's beginnings in the mountains of Afghanistan, where Mohammed proposed the plot in a meeting with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, to the dark recesses of the CIA's secret prisons, where he spent more than three years.

'I am the mastermind'

By all accounts, the spotlight during what would be the biggest terrorism trial in U.S. history would provide Mohammed, a man of no small ego, with the kind of attention he craves. A showman, he has reveled in a number of appearances at Guantanamo Bay, tossing self-aggrandizing broadsides from his perch at the front of a courtroom and then retreating into self-satisfied smiles.

"I know him well, and if he gets his way in federal court, it will be a circus," said Charles D. "Cully" Stimson, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the Bush administration. "The court will have to rein in his speechifying and keep the focus on his criminal behavior."

The 9/11 Commission Report, discussing Mohammed's terrorist ambitions, called him a "self-cast star."

"I am the mastermind of 9/11, not Osama bin Laden," he said in one court hearing.

His vanity has also surfaced. He once complained that a courtroom sketch artist had drawn his nose too big. The rendering of the proboscis was adjusted.

Mohammed, 44, was born in Kuwait, the third son of Pakistani immigrants drawn to the oil-rich emirate, where his father became the imam of a mosque serving Pakistanis. Mohammed said he was a radical from a young age, asserting in a statement he gave to the CIA after his capture that he and nephew Ramzi Yousef -- convicted in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center -- had torn down the Kuwaiti flag at their elementary school.

By 16, Mohammed had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, and become "enamored of violent jihad at youth camps in the desert," according to a detailed profile in the 9/11 Commission Report.

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