With the death of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, Pakistan on 2 May 2011, the number of people still alive who knew in advance of Al-Qa’ida plans to attack the United States in September 2001 has been reduced to five, all of whom are presently in Guantanamo Bay. The best figure for those who were privy to details of the attacks comes from statements given under interrogation by their main organiser, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who has been in US custody since his arrest in Pakistan in March 2003. Under intense interrogation – many would call it torture – KSM revealed that 35 people had known some or all of the details in advance, including the 19 hijackers and pilots in the four aircraft.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). FBI mugshot used on wanted posters until his capture.
This article examines the fate of all 35 of those complicit in the attacks. In particular, it examines the failure of the US authorities to put anyone on trial for the murder of almost 3,000 people, despite the fact that some of those involved have been in custody for almost a decade.
It also examines the remarkable and largely unreported campaign waged by KSM and his fellow prisoners from their cells in Guantanamo. Despite being cut off from the world for many years and despite the ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques used against them, they have managed to present a coherent ideological explanation of their actions to the world and - thanks to the indecision of the prosecutors - to subvert and thwart the legal processes used against them.
It is easy to forget it now, but until the appearance of our book, Masterminds of Terror, in 2003 and the revelations it contained in interviews conducted by Yosri Fouda with KSM and Ramzi Binalshibh - the two main planners of 9/11 - neither man was well known to any but a tiny handful of analysts. KSM himself was not part of the inner circle of al-Qa’ida because he was not an Arab. In fact, he did not swear bay’ah (allegiance) to bin Laden until after the attacks. Although brought up in Kuwait, he is a Baluchi by background and would never have been allowed to become part of the central leadership of the organisation. Al-Qa’ida has always ensured its main core remained Arab.
However, he had proved himself because of his remarkable organisational abilities. When he was summoned to Kandahar in 1999 to see Osama bin Laden about using planes as missiles he was already an experienced terrorist. Working with his nephew Ramzi Yousef, in 1993 he had helped to plan a truck bomb attack on one of the Twin Towers in New York. He had gone on to develop the idea of using passenger planes as missiles while living in the Philippines in the mid-‘nineties where he planned to explode bombs on up to ten aircraft flying across the Pacific in what became known as the Operation Bojinka plot.
In Kandahar KSM asked bin Laden to give him two years to plan and carry out the attacks on America and succeeded in completing the project in secret, on time and at minimal cost. He was clearly proud of his achievements and could not resist boasting about them to Fouda when they met secretly in Karachi in April 2002. Even after KSM was captured and interrogated, those freely-given confessions formed the basis of all subsequent writing about how the attacks on America had been planned. And despite some additional information revealed by KSM under torture, he changed hardly a fact after his capture.
Following his arrest in Rawalpindi in March 2003, KSM was transferred to US custody and for the next three and a half years disappeared into the maze of secret ‘black’ prisons and rendition programmes operated by the CIA. It was only in September 2006 that the US government announced it had moved him and more than a dozen other ‘high value detainees’ from their secret prisons, scattered across the world from Thailand to Poland, to Guantanamo Bay.
KSM after arrested in Rawalpindi in 2003.
The first indication of KSM’s importance came in a CIA document written in July 2004 and later declassified called Khalid Shaykh Muhammad: Preeminent Source on Al-Qaeda. That revealed that “Since his March 2003 capture, KSM, the driving force behind the 11 September attacks as well as several subsequent plots against US and Western targets worldwide, has become one of the US government’s key sources on al-Qa’ida.” It added that he had provided reports that shed light on al-Qa’ida’s “doctrine, plots, and probable targets, key operatives, and the likely methods for attack in the US homeland, leading to the disruption of several plots against the United States”. Information provided by KSM also led to the August 2003 capture of Hambali, the Indonesian leader of Jemaah Islamiah and planner of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.
KSM also revealed to his interrogators that he had initially planned a follow-up attack to 9/11, also involving planes, but concentrating on aircraft leaving the western United States and flying across the Pacific. The tightening of security in the wake of the September 2001 attacks caused him to reassess this strategy and to redirect his energies (unsuccessfully) to bombing aircraft taking off from Heathrow in London. He also considered using Jemaah Islamiya operatives from Indonesia to crash a hijacked airliner into a tower block on the US West Coast and also came up with some low-level plots, including an early 2002 plan to send US citizen and al-Qa’ida operative Jose Padilla to set off bombs in American high-rise apartment buildings. In early 2003 he tried to get a network of Pakistanis in the US to target gas stations, rail track and the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. None of these plots came to anything.
Further information about KSM’s role in planning the attacks on America and on his subsequent activities was revealed in a document submitted to the trial of Zakarias Moussaoui, who was arrested a few weeks before 9/11 and was at one time thought to be the so-called Twentieth Hijacker. This 2006 document is a summary of what KSM told his interrogators. Its anonymous author writes in the introduction: “You should assume that if Sheikh Mohammed were available to testify in this courtroom under oath and subject to perjury he would have said what is contained in these statements”.
In this document KSM says he was never a member of al-Qa’ida’s Shura Council – its highest body – but that the highest position he attained was chief of external operations, as decreed in writing by bin Laden four months before KSM’s arrest in March 2003. He had previously been head of media operations and head of the 9/11 operation.
He reiterates that the original plan was for planes to be hijacked on both the East and the West coasts of America, but that the West Coast operation was cancelled by bin Laden in the spring of 2000. Throughout the next year he kept in touch with the hijack pilots, asking them to be normal “to the maximum extent possible in their dealings, to keep the tone of their letters educational, social or commercial and to keep the calls short.” Mohammad Atta, the lead pilot and organiser, was given authority to make decisions and told not to contact Pakistan for any reason.
This document says that the plan to attack America was discussed in Kandahar with Bin Laden, al-Qa’ida’s military leader Abu Hafs al-Masri (aka Mohammed Atef) and three of the four pilots – Hani Hanjour had not been identified at this point. Bin Laden eventually told Mohammed Atta that the pilots must hit both towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the US Capitol in Washington. Additional targets that were considered included the White House, the Sears Tower and a foreign embassy in Washington. A nuclear power station was later added to the list of potential targets.
In this document KSM also sets out in more detail how the training and planning for 9/11 was carried out, noting that 34 people were involved in addition to himself. He divided them into five groups:
1) Bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, KSM, Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Turab al-Urduni, a Jordanian responsible for training ten of the ‘muscle hijackers’ at two Afghan training camps in hijackings, disarming air marshals, explosives, body-building and basic English. Al-Urduni was the son-in-law of al-Qa’ida deputy leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and is believed to have been killed in late 2001 in Afghanistan. Mohammed Atef, head of the military committee, also died at around this time as a result of a US airstrike.
2) The four pilots plus Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdar, who were part of the ‘muscle’.
3) The remaining 13 hijackers who did not learn the full details of the operation until they reached the USA in the spring and early summer of 2001;
4) The four operatives who handled logistical, financial and some training aspects of the operation. These were Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Ammar al-Baluchi (a nephew of KSM), Abd al-Rahim Ghulam Rabbani and Walid bin Attash. All four men are all in Guantanamo and are scheduled to face a military tribunal. Al-Hawsawi was captured in Rawalpindi with KSM in March 2003, Al-Baluchi and Bin Attash were captured in Karachi in April 2003 and Rabbani was captured in Karachi in September 2002 along with Ramzi Binalshibh.
5) The back-up muscle, consisting of seven potential hijackers, (plus Ramzi Binalshibh), who were would-be hijackers who never made it to the United States. They knew they were involved in a martyrdom operation in the United States, but had no idea of the fact that it involved aircraft.
KSM himself knew very little of the operational detail of what happened in America because the main points of contact for the pilots were Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. He confirmed that the date for the attacks was decided by Mohammad Atta, who had passed the information to Ramzi Binalshibh, who in turn sent a messenger to KSM in Pakistan. He also confirmed that bin Laden had tried to bring the attacks forward on three occasions, but that he had resisted this pressure, saying his men were not ready.
Having been subjected to water-boarding and other interrogation techniques to get information, the US authorities had to decide what to do with KSM and the other prisoners. From the beginning there was little clarity. In March 2007 KSM appeared before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. The tribunal was convened to determine whether or not he met the criteria to be designated as an enemy combatant against the United States. KSM agreed to participate in the tribunal, even though he could have refused. Evidence presented included a computer hard drive seized during KSM’s capture containing information about the four aircraft used in the hijackings, including code names, flight numbers, targets, pilot names and background information and names of the hijackers. One file included photographs of all 19 hijackers.
Other material seized at the time of KSM’s arrest included a document that listed Mohammad Atta’s pilot fees and held images of passports, transcripts of chat sessions from at least one of the hijackers, three letters from Osama bin Laden, spreadsheets showing financial assistance to the families of known al-Qa’ida members and details of other al-Qa’ida plots and plans.
After the unclassified evidence had been presented to the Tribunal, KSM made a statement. It should be remembered that by this point, KSM had been water-boarded a total of 183 times. Water-boarding is an extreme form of torture which, although it leaves no physical marks, makes the victim believe he is about to drown. It seems very likely that some of the information provided to his interrogators was made up. In October 2006, KSM described his treatment and torture to the International Committee of the Red Cross. He said he had provided the information that his interrogators wanted to hear. In this interview, he claimed he had been water-boarded many times in five different sessions during the first month of detention.
KSM’s requests to call Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa al-Hawsawi (who was arrested at the same time and in the same place as KSM) as witnesses were both turned down by the Tribunal on the grounds that anything they could say would not materially affect his position. In fact, Binhalshibh would have been of little help to KSM. According to his own lawyers, he has been suffering from a psychotic disorder since 2006 following four years in the custody of the CIA and they believe he is in no fit state to face trial.
KSM tried to assert that parts of the evidence were untrue because he had said anything to stop his captors torturing him during the period he had ‘disappeared’ into the secret CIA prisons between 2003-06.
However, he admitted he was operational director for the planning, execution and follow-up of the 9/11 operation, reporting to Mohammed Atef, the organisation’s military commander. He was also military operational commander for all foreign operations, under the direction of bin Laden and Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri. He said he was also in charge of managing and following up on the Cell for the Production of Biological Weapons and for following up on the Dirty Bomb Operation on American soil. In addition, he says he was Emir of Beit al Shuhada – also known as Beit al-Ghomad, after the al-Ghamdi family name that was carried by many of the volunteers, particularly those from Yemen - the house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the 9/11 hijackers stayed during their training.
KSM’s personal representative at the Tribunal went on to read a statement in his name, as follows:
“Also I hereby admit and affirm without duress that I was a responsible participant, principal planner, trainer, financier (via the Military Council Treasury), executor and/or a personal participant in the following:
- I was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center operation;
- I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z;
- I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the internet holding his head;
- I was responsible for the Shoe Bomber operation to down two American airplanes;
- I was responsible for the Filka Island operation in Kuwait that killed two American soldiers;
- I was responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, which was frequented by British and Australian nationals;
- I was responsible for planning, training, surveying and financing the New (or Second) Wave attacks against the following skyscrapers after 9/11;
a) Library Tower, California
b) Sears Tower, Chicago
c) Plaza Bank, Washington State
d) The Empire State Building, New York City
- I was responsible for planning, financing and follow-up of operations to destroy American military vessels and oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Port of Singapore;
- I was responsible for planning, training, surveying and financing for the operation to bomb and destroy the Panama Canal;
10. I was responsible for surveying and financing for the assassination of several former American presidents, including President Carter;
11. I was responsible for surveying, planning and financing for the bombing of suspension bridges in New York;
12. I was responsible for planning to destroy the Sears Tower by burning a few fuel or oil tanker trucks beneath it or around it.
13. I was responsible for planning, surveying and financing for the operation to destroy Heathrow Airport, the Canary Wharf building and Big Ben on British soil;
14. I was responsible for planning, surveying and financing for the destruction of many night clubs frequented by American and British citizens on Thailand soil;
15. I was responsible for surveying and financing for the destruction of the New York Stock Exchange and other financial targets after 9/11;
16. I was responsible for planning, financing and surveying for the destruction of buildings in the Israeli city of Eilat, by using airplanes leaving from Saudi Arabia;
17. I was responsible for planning, surveying and financing for the destruction of American embassies in Indonesia, Australia and Japan;
18. I was responsible for surveying and financing for the destruction of the Israeli Embassy in India, Azerbaijan, the Philippines and Australia;
19. I was responsible for surveying and financing for the destruction of an Israeli El Al Airlines flight on Thailand soil, departing from Bangkok Airport;
20. I was responsible for sending several Mujahideen into Israel to conduct surveillance to hit several strategic targets deep in Israel;
21. I was responsible for the bombing of the hotel in Mombasa that is frequented by Jewish travellers via El Al Airlines;
22. I was responsible for launching a Russian-made SA-7 surface-to-air missile on El Al or other Jewish airliner departing from Mombasa;
23. I was responsible for planning and surveying to hit American Targets in South Korea, such as American military bases and a few night clubs frequented by American soldiers;
24. I was responsible for financial, excuse me, I was responsible for providing financial support to hit American, Jewish and British targets in Turkey;
25. I was responsible for surveillance needed to hit nuclear power plants that generate electricity in several US states;
26. I was responsible for planning, surveying and financing to hit NATO headquarters in Europe;
27. I was responsible for the planning and surveying needed to execute the Bojinka Operation, which was designed to down 12 American airplanes full of passengers. I personally monitored a round trip, Manila to Seoul, Pan-Am flight;
28. I was responsible for the assassination attempt against President Clinton during his visit to the Philippines in 1994 or 1995;
29. I shared responsibility for the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul the second while he was visiting the Philippines.
30. I was responsible for the training and financing for the assassination of Pakistan’s President Musharraf;
31. I was responsible for the attempt to destroy an American oil company owned by the Jewish former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia”.
This must amount to one of the most comprehensive confessions of all time and smacks somewhat of a show-trial confession. After the prepared statement was read out, KSM clarified some of the points and appeared to make his confession conditional – a point that was missed by the President of the Tribunal. Some of these operations, such as Bojinka, were nothing to do with Al-Qa’ida, KSM said. Likewise with the murder of Daniel Pearl, which he said was done in collaboration with Pakistani jihadist organisations and not Al-Qa’ida. He further explained that he would not swear an oath as he did not accept the American constitution or law. However, he explained, this did not mean he was lying.
KSM went on to say that accepting responsibility for these events did not mean that he had done them. It was part of a war. He considered what he had done was similar to what George Washington had done in fighting for independence from Britain. While he did not deny he was an enemy combatant, he said many of his fellow detainees in Guantanamo were not enemy combatants, but had been wrongly arrested. They were simply good Afghan Muslims fighting an enemy that had arrived to occupy their country. Of course there were innocent victims in war, he admitted. But how were the innocent victims of 9/11 any different from the wife, two daughters and son of Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri who were killed by US bombs?
No-one at the Tribunal questioned KSM about either his actions or his statement. After approximately an hour and 15 minutes it concluded, with KSM being told his status would be reviewed as a result of the hearing.
We have no doubt that he would have liked to have been responsible for all the claims set out in his speech, but was he? One thing that is missing, which we are sure he was responsible for, is the 2002 Djerba operation in Tunisia when a suicide bomber drove a gasoline tanker into a synagogue, killing 21 people, after KSM gave the go-ahead. Maybe he forgot that one.
So he seemed to be taking responsibility for some outrages he might not have perpetrated, while keeping quiet about ones in which he was implicated. He was also blurring the line between what he did and what he was hoping or plotting to do. It is also possible he was taking credit so other people, still at large, could avoid the blame. We can never know for sure.
Following the Tribunal hearing, nothing happened until almost a year later, in February 2008, when the US Department of Defense announced that charges had been sworn against six detainees at Guantanamo alleged to be responsible for the planning and execution of the attacks on America. The six detainees were KSM, Walid Mohammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Mohamed al-Kahtani.
KSM in 2009. Picture taken by the Red Cross and given to his famlily.
All were charged with conspiracy and also with murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, destruction of property in violation of the law of war, terrorism and providing material support for terrorism. KSM was specified as the mastermind of the attacks, while Bin’Attash was alleged to have run the training camp in Logar province in Afghanistan where at least two of the hijackers were trained and to have collected information used to plan the plane hijackings, although he apparently knew nothing of the actual attack plans.
Binalshibh lived in Hamburg with three of the hijackers and found flight schools in America for the pilots as well as helping with the finance for 9/11. Al-Hawsawi was alleged to have assisted and prepared the hijackers with money, western clothing, travellers’ cheques and credit cards and to have helped in the transfer of thousands of dollars to the hijackers. Aziz Ali – aka Ammar al-Baluchi - who is a nephew of KSM, helped by sending around $120,000 to the hijackers for their expenses and flight training and also helped to send nine of the hijackers to the United States. In all there were 169 separate charges. Al-Kahtani was named because he was sent to join the hijackers in America, but was denied entry.
The aim was to try the six men under the Military Commissions Act together in a military tribunal, where if guilty, they would face the death penalty. Guilt on non-capital offenses would require a two-thirds majority of the military commission, while guilt on a capital offense would require a unanimous decision of a commission composed of at least 12 members.
The trial actually began in June 2008 at the special legal complex in Guantanamo Bay. Present in an adjoining room were around 35 journalists who heard as all the accused declined to be represented by attorneys. At a further hearing in September 2008, KSM challenged the right of the judge to try him, saying “How can you, as an officer in the US Marine Corps, stand over me in judgement?” Then in December 2008, in an unexpected move, the defendants all told the judge they wished to plead guilty to all charges.
They set out their reasons in March 2009, when they submitted a remarkable document entitled “The Islamic Response to the Government’s Nine Accusations.” The only one of the six not to sign it was al-Kahtani, the lowest ranking of the six defendants and widely regarded as a simpleton.
Their response was defiant: “With regards to these nine accusations that you are putting us on trial for; to us, they are not accusations. To us they are badges of honor, which we carry with pride. Many thanks to God, for his kind gesture and choosing us to perform the act of Jihad for his cause and to defend Islam and the Muslims”.
The first accusation is the charge of conspiracy which, they say, is laughable. “Were you expecting us to inform you about our secret attack plans?” They point out that the intelligence agencies were unable to discover the attack in advance, so that it is they who should be blamed for their failure.
The second, third and fourth accusations, they say, are that they attacked civilians, civilian objects and deliberately caused grave bodily harm. It was not they who initiated attacks on civilians, they argue in this carefully crafted polemic, pointing to the examples of Israel’s attacks on Palestinians and the first Gulf war in Iraq. They mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “You are the last nation that has the right to speak about civilians and killing civilians. You are professional criminals, with all the meaning the words carry.” They offer quotes from the Q’uran that argue in favour of retribution based on the principle of an eye for an eye.
On accusations five and six, namely crimes in violation of the law of war and destroying property in violation of the law of war, once again they allege that the United States has done the same by supporting Israel and by attacking an independent Arab nation, ie Iraq in 1991. They say that the United States has violated the laws of war in the way they have treated prisoners, particularly in the ‘Black Sites’ and in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
With regards to the seventh accusation, hijacking and/or endangering a vessel or an aircraft, they refer to Iranian civilian airline flight 655 which was shot down by a US ship in the Gulf in 1988, killing 290 passengers, including 66 children. “If you do not respect the innocent of our countries, then we will do the same, by exposing you to danger and hijacking in the air, at sea and land.”
Predictably, they defend their right to carry out terrorist attacks because this is the only way to oppose such a powerful enemy. The statement ends with further defiance:
“We ask to be near to God, we fight you and destroy you and terrorize you. The Jihad in God's cause is a great duty in our religion. We have news for you, the news is: You will be greatly defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq and that America will fall, politically, militarily, and economically. Your end is very near and your fall will be just as the fall of the towers on the blessed 9/11 day. We will raise from the ruins, God willing. We will leave this imprisonment with our noses raised high in dignity, as the lion emerges from his den. We shall pass over the blades of the sword into the gates of heaven. So we ask from God to accept our contributions to the great attack, the great attack on America, and to place our nineteen martyred brethren among the highest peaks in paradise. God is great and pride for God, the prophet, and the believers....”
The statement is signed ‘The 9/11 Shura Council’, followed by the names of the five signatories.
Soon after this statement was made public, new pictures of KSM appeared on the internet. He was now wearing traditional robes and had a very long beard. He was unrecognizable from the man who had last been pictured as he was captured in Pakistan in 2003. The pictures were not released by the Guantanamo Bay authorities, who must have been appalled at their appearance. In fact they had come from the Red Cross, who took them in July 2009. The Red Cross had an agreement that allowed them to photograph detainees and send photos to family members, who, in turn, had circulated them on the internet.
The decision by the five men to plead guilty and to make a defiant statement clearly rattled the military authorities, who could see that the military tribunal was rapidly turning into a farce. In November 2009 and despite the fact that the military tribunal had actually begun, US Attorney General Eric Holder Jnr announced that the five men would all be transferred to the US District Court for the Southern District of New York for trial in an American civilian court. Two months later, in January 2010, all the charges were withdrawn by the military commission ‘without prejudice’, meaning that they could be returned to military jurisdiction at a later date if it was felt necessary.
This, however, was not the end of the matter. A majority of the members of the US Congress were determined that none of the Guantanamo prisoners should have a civil trial on American soil. In January 2011 President Barack Obama, who promised during his election campaign to close Guantanamo, had no choice but to sign the National Defense Authorisation Act, which prohibited the use of US Defense Department funds to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the United States and barred Pentagon funds from being used to build facilities in the United States to house detainees – effectively preventing a civilian trial. Although Obama criticized the measure, which had been imposed on him by Congress, he nonetheless signed it.
Its effect was to ensure that jurisdiction over the five defendants would once again be transferred back to a military commission in Cuba. It also made a mockery of US legal procedures in relation to Guantanamo prisoners. On 4 April 2011 Attorney General Holder, to his own clear embarrassment, announced that the military commission hearing was back on again. Holder too criticized Congress for preventing a civilian trial from going ahead, saying "Had this case proceeded in Manhattan or in an alternative venue in the United States, as I seriously explored in the past year, I am confident that our justice system would have performed with the same distinction that has been its hallmark for over 200 years."
As a result of the decision to send the case back to a military commission in Guantanamo, the abandoned civilian indictment was unsealed. This 81-page document includes the names of the 2,976 people known to have died in the 9/11 attacks and sets out a detailed account of the planning and timetable for the attacks. At the time of writing (November 2011) no date has yet been set for the military commission hearings.
So almost ten years after 9/11 none of the main conspirators has yet been put on trial – although that now seems to be a certainty. The five men in Guantanamo who are the only survivors of those who were in on the conspiracy have been able to turn the table on their captors, exposing the weaknesses of the American legal position on Guantanamo and making statements to the world that seek to justify their actions. While the US authorities have been made to look clumsy, indecisive and as if they were running a show trial, the prisoners have been consistent and coherent in their condemnation of the process to which they have been subjected.
The legal humiliation of a nation that prides itself on access to justice for all has been complete. Whether or not the United States and its allies win on the battlefields of Afghanistan, it has suffered a substantial reverse in its handling of the legal case against the men known to have planned the worst terrorist atrocity in living memory. Guilty verdicts from a military commission in Cuba will do little to correct the impression that America failed to use its most powerful weapon – full and open justice in front of the people – in the fight against terrorism.