A staggering ego, at the center of difficult issues

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.

Life in America

But like other leading Sept. 11 conspirators, such as Mohamed Atta, he looked to the West to further his education. After high school, he enrolled at Chowan College (now University) in North Carolina. He transferred after one semester to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1986.

The 9/11 Commission Report said Mohammed did not attract attention in the United States for any extremist beliefs. But a CIA document released this year said Mohammed's "limited and negative experiences in the United States -- which included a brief jail stay because of unpaid bills -- almost certainly propelled him on his path to become a terrorist."

Mohammed lost his driver's license in North Carolina after he got into an accident while driving without insurance, according to a U.S. official. He was later arrested in Kentucky and spent a night in jail for unpaid tickets and for driving with a revoked license.

He told the CIA his contacts with Americans confirmed his view that the United States was a "debauched and racist country," according to the agency document. Later, at Guantanamo Bay, he told one person who had contact with him that, in all his time in the United States, he had never touched an American, not even to shake hands.

Conspiracy's beginning

After college, Mohammed traveled to Pakistan, where one of his brothers worked for a Kuwaiti charity, and immersed himself in the world of the anti-Soviet mujaheddin.

In 1996, when he described his plot for a direct attack on the United States using aircraft as weapons, bin Laden listened but did not immediately commit, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. In late 1998, after al-Qaeda succeeded in bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, bin Laden finally approved what the group came to refer to as the "planes operation."

Under Mohammed's original plan for Sept. 11, 10 aircraft were to be hijacked. He was to have been aboard the only one not to crash, and after killing the male passengers he was to deliver a speech condemning U.S. support for Israel, as well as the Philippines and governments in the Arab world.

The 9/11 Commission Report notes: "This vision gives a better glimpse of his true ambitions. This is theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast star -- the superterrorist."

"To be treated as a common criminal is the last thing Khalid Sheik Mohammed wants," said Tom Malinowski, head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. "It disintegrates the warrior mystique that al-Qaeda promotes to sustain itself -- a mystique that a military trial would have reinforced."

CIA's 'preeminent source'

Mohammed was captured on March 1, 2003, at a safe house in Rawalpindi, a garrison town near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. The photograph that flashed across the world after the arrest was of a slovenly, overweight man. When Mohammed, an avid reader of press reports about him, later saw it, he was furious.

He was quickly whisked out of Pakistan to a CIA "black site." Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times in his first month in captivity, said he lied to his interrogators, or told them what he thought they already knew, to stop the torment. In time, he also cooperated with the CIA and became what the agency described as the "preeminent source" on al-Qaeda.

Defenders of Bush administration interrogation policies have pointed to the intelligence Mohammed provided to justify the use of methods such as waterboarding. Others, including some CIA officials, say that there is no proof of cause and effect, and that the voluminous material amassed from Mohammed could have been acquired without coercion, specifically through the measured exploitation of his extraordinary ego.

The braggadocio visible in his courtroom outbursts also led Mohammed to agree to lecture CIA agents in a classroom setting while in custody. But his time in prison has been marked by moments of despair, according to officials familiar with his detention. Those moments include the time he was given photographs of his children, two of whom were captured with him but now live in Iran with his wife.

He has spent most of his time at Guantanamo Bay in prayer or reading in his cell. The routine has been broken only by visits to the gym, where he likes to jog in small circles, or conversations in the yard with the detainee in the adjoining space.

Mohammed has said he is impatient to end the legal process.

"This is what I wish: to be a martyr for a long time," he said last year. "I will, God willing, have this."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company