On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, will soon face charges in front of a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay. We learn more about Mohammed’s personal story, how he eluded capture and the implications of his trial.
- Josh Meyer Journalist; and coauthor "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed" (Little, Brown and Co.)
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. The new trial of the century comes along every decade or two, and proceedings are now set to get underway in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with all the hallmarks of a legendary case, an international manhunt, torture, defendant, with a penchant for karaoke that was nearly his undoing.
MR. MARC FISHERKhalid Sheikh Mohammed and several co-defendants are facing a potential death sentence for crimes that include the murder of nearly 3,000 people. Josh Myer is here to give us some insight into the man alleged to be the real mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. And Josh Myer is the author of "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." Welcome to the program. Josh, tell us a little bit about that initial -- that manhunt that finally did capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
MR. JOSH MEYERWell, thanks for having me, Marc. You know, it was a fascinating manhunt. While the public was focusing on Osama bin Laden and the military was trying to get him, you know, from the caves in Afghanistan or Pakistan or where he was, this was a guns-up hunt through the streets of Karachi, Pakistan and other places, and it was done mostly in secret. It was, you know, done mostly by the FBI and the CIA to try to catch this guy. And they finally cornered him in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, which is a military garrison town.
MR. JOSH MEYERAnd after 18 months of hunting him after 9/11 even in, you know, spending an ordinate amount of energy and time on this, they caught him in a sleep in a guest house at three in the morning.
FISHERAnd the reason they knew he was there, there had been FBI and CIA guys after him for quite some time, and perhaps, working a little bit at odds with each other I understand.
MEYERRight. I mean, the way we wanted to tell the story was -- is sort of a ground level, you know, view of the hunt for KSM, but also, for the war on terrorism. And, I think, there's been a lot of books written about -- you know, from a 30,000-foot perspective. But, you know, we really wanted to try to focus on the people that we're on the ground chasing these guys.
MEYERAnd when you really look at how it played out on the ground, you had some incredible fights and friction and tension between the FBI and the CIA within elements of the FBI, in particular with the government of Pakistan and other governments, but you also had some success stories too. There were some Pakistani police officers that really came around and wanted to help as much as possible to catch KSM and some of these other guys.
FISHERWe're talking with Josh Myer. He's a reporter and co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University's Medill Journalism School, and he's written a new book with Terry McDermott called "The Hunt for KSM." You can join our conversation about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by calling 1-800-433-8850, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I was fascinated to read about the earlier life of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
FISHERHe actually spent time in the United States, came here to study science. And was he a radical from the start? What -- where can you pinpoint the moment at which he became a radical terrorist?
MEYERWell, Marc, you know, in journalism, as you know they're -- you're always in search of the telling details and, you know, and an insight into the way somebody thinks. And I think Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was sent to the United States to study engineering in North Carolina by his family. They can only afford to send one person from the family, and they thought that he had a lot of promise and intellect. And I don't know if he came here with a chip on his shoulder, but he did encounter a lot of pretty serious discrimination in North Carolina.
MEYERAnd the telling detail that really got me was there were a lot of other people that would like to play pranks on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of the other Arabs that were here studying. They would put a pail of water against their door, and they would knock on the door, and when they'd opened the door, the water would spill out all over their floors. So when he went back to Pakistan after that he was very angry at the United States, and that might have set him on the path that led to the 9/11 attacks.
FISHERBut in addition to the anger with the United States, he also had an abiding anti-Semitic streak that went back quite a long time. Any sense over the roots of that?
MEYERWell, yeah. I mean, he -- I think that he, like a lot of these other al-Qaida guys and radical fundamentalists, is very angry about the U.S. treatment of the Israel-Palestinian cause. So some of it is not necessarily religious and cultural as an anti-Semitism as it is anti-cynicism, but it's obviously a sum of both. And what made KSM a lot different than Osama bin Laden and some of these other guys is that he was very, very political. It was -- it wasn't as much religion for him as it was politics.
MEYERI mean, he was a very political guy. I mean, if you asked him, he'll tell you when he was in Guantanamo, he expounded at great length about how he saw himself as George Washington fighting the, you know, the Red Coats in the Revolutionary War. He really thinks that he's the good guy, you know, leading a fight to sort of free Muslims from tyranny.
FISHERAnd do you have a sense from talking to the people who know him well or who have spent a lot of time interrogating him? Do you have a sense of just how bright a guy is this? Is he, I mean, does he come off as a common criminal? Does he -- or does he, you know, is he's somebody you could actually sit down with and have a rational discussion with?
MEYERYeah. Well, that's a great question, Marc, because, you know, most people see that iconic photo of him after he was caught where he's glowering and skulking and looks, you know, like he's asleep in his undershirt. But he was actually and still is a very, very charismatic guy. He's extremely intelligent. I mean, this is a guy who can meet people, assess their talents and skills and radicalize them and get them to blow themselves up within a matter of weeks sometimes. And you need a lot of, you know, sort of mental firepower to be able to do that.
FISHERAnd that wild picture of him with the hair stretched out and all that, there's a story in the book about that's pretty much a stage shot, isn't it, in a sense?
MEYERSort of. I mean, after he was caught and George Tenet, the former CIA director, alludes to this a little bit in his book, too, was that after he was caught in Pakistan in March 2003, there were some photos that started, you know, winging their way around the Internet about -- of KSM, you know, from wanted posters showing him very defiant and so forth.
MEYERSo they wanted to make sure that there was a photo of him out there that was less glamorous, and so they -- word came down to the CIA officers on the ground to, you know, send them a photo that was less flattering. So they took some steps to make sure that that was the case.
FISHERMessed up his hair and that sort of thing?
FISHERYeah. So he actually grew up in Kuwait, but he's not Kuwaiti by birth. So was there this sense of being an outsider, being excluded that's kind of thread through his entire life?
MEYERYeah. I mean, he very definitely sees himself in that regard. In fact, it's even more than that. There's within Pakistani culture itself, he was a Baluch, which is somebody from the sort of ancient region of Baluchistan, which straddles Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan. So even in the Pakistani culture of workers in Kuwait, the Baluchis were sort of the lowest rung of them. So I think that he's always had that kind of chip on his shoulder about that.
FISHERAnd is he really a sheik?
MEYERNo, no, no. I think that that was -- well, that's part of his name. I think that in that part of the world, sometimes you can have that as part of your name. What's interesting, though, is that when he was on the run and formulating, literally, dozens of terrorist attacks and plots from the mid-'90s on, one day he would portray himself as a wealthy Arab sheik. The next day, he would be a holy water salesman. So he really did inhabit a bunch of different cover stories and roles, and that allowed him to stay one step ahead of the people that were chasing him.
FISHERAnd they'd been chasing him from well before 9/11, going back into the '90s for various other terrorist incidents. How -- so we're now talking about over the course of both the Clinton and Bush White Houses. What -- how hampered were investigators, or were they hampered by the sense, politically at that time, that the administrations didn't want to be seen as picking on Muslims, that there was this reticence about going after these guys with full force?
MEYERYou know, there's a little of that, but I think that it's, in some ways, more complicated and, in some ways, less complicated. I think, back in the '90s, the tip of the spear for the U.S., you know, war on terrorism was the FBI, not the CIA. And they had an -- New York field office was the one that was really leading a lot of these investigations, in fact, all of them.
MEYERAnd so they had a couple of agents, one in particular, named Frank Pellegrino, who literally chased KSM around the world starting in 1993 because they had linked him to the first World Trade Center attack through his nephew Ramzi Yousef. But they encountered a lot of obstacles from within the FBI, like I said earlier, from the CIA, from other countries, and the reason was because, by the late '90s, they were fixated almost completely on al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden as the threat.
MEYERAnd they just didn't see KSM as being part of al-Qaida. He was always his own guy. He was always an independent contractor. And, you know, they couldn't arouse enough interest in the counter-terrorism community at large to help them find this guy. And that was a huge mistake.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, we'll get deeper into the hunt for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We're talking with Josh Meyer, the author of "The Hunt for KSM." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Josh Meyer about his new book, co-authored with Terry McDermott, "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." And that chase that went on for years preceding and then much more intensely following the 9/11 attacks, the folks who were going after him in the years before 9/11, did they have the sense that he was going to do something bigger? Was that looming in their minds? Or was he just one in a bunch of people?
MEYERWell, they were very afraid. They knew how charismatic and how intelligent and how obsessed KSM was with plots. I mean, they had followed him to the Philippines in 1995 where he and Ramzi Yousef, his nephew, were plotting to kill President Clinton, the Pope, the prime minister of Pakistan and also to do a plot called Bojinka, which means big noise in Serbo-Croatian. And that was a plot to blow up 12 airliners full of people as they crossed the Atlantic towards the United States.
MEYERAnd so they knew that he was up to no good. They did try to catch him. They came very close in Qatar in 1996, but he was allowed to slip out the backdoor by the government.
FISHERBy whose government?
MEYERThe Qatar government, yeah. Well, we're not -- nobody will say exactly who did it, but it's -- the U.S. position is that somebody in the Qatar government tipped him off, that they were -- I mean, there was a rendition team of FBI and CIA people there waiting to catch him. And they believe that they came within an hour or two, and all of a sudden when they came to -- went to get him, he was gone.
MEYERBut they also -- and they'll -- the people that were chasing him are the first to admit that the one thing that they didn't do was they didn't link Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to al-Qaida. And so somewhere in the late '90s, he disappeared and dropped off the radar, popped up in Afghanistan and began plotting the 9/11 attacks. And what's important is, I think, the American public thinks that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and he wasn't.
MEYERHe didn't even want to do it. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed brought the plot to him in '96. Bin Laden wasn't interested. He was persistent, came back a few times and then, finally, in '98, confused -- convinced bin Laden to let him do it. But KSM essentially did the plot, you know, orchestrated it from beginning to end himself with a small group of people. And he's the one that should get the blame and the credit for 9/11, not bin Laden.
FISHERAnd what was bin Laden's objection?
MEYERWell, he just wasn't sure that the plot would work. He wasn't sure that it would get the stated objectives done. Initially, the plot was 10 planes, and then, at the end of it, KSM was going to land the 10th plane and get out and tell the American people why he was doing what he was doing. And so, you know, bin Laden did play a small role in this, in helping scale the plot back to something that was more manageable.
FISHERAnd did KSM portray him as being very politically motivated, not so much a religious guy?
FISHERIn fact, there's significant evidence in the book that he was quite irreligious, in some way.
MEYERYeah. Yeah. When he -- you know, he -- one of the people that was chasing him said that if he hadn't been the mastermind of 9/11 and killed almost 3,000 people, he would have probably been a fun guy to have a couple of beers with.
MEYERAnd the reason he said that is because, you know, they -- these FBI agents in particular spent a lot of time in the Philippines and in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. And they found out that KSM was -- met a lot of dancing girls, was -- liked karaoke, would drink beer. He was not your typical radical fundamentalist. In fact, one of the ways they caught him was he had sent a couple of cards to one of the Filipino bar girls. And they realized that he'd whited out his return address, and they looked underneath it and found that -- his address in Qatar and went there to get him.
FISHERWow. And so that's where karaoke played a part in his undoing, or nearly did.
FISHERYeah. And was there friction between the religious zealots that were part of this criminal network and those like KSM who were just in this for political reasons?
MEYERYou know, I think there was some of that. I mean, Marc, one of the things that we write about in the book -- and I was at the L.A. Times, writing about this for 10 years before that, and I wrote a story for the L.A. Times about it, and it probably got more hits than anything I've written -- was the tremendous friction between KSM and bin Laden. I mean, bin Laden -- it was almost like a "Dilbert" cartoon because bin Laden would always, you know, meddle in the plot and try to sort of play a role in it.
MEYERAnd KSM would, you know, like he was some bad, meddling boss, would sort of push him away and insist on doing things his way. And one of the things that bin Laden wanted, for instance, was the plot moved up to be done in the summer of 2001. And KSM said, no, we're not ready. We're going to do this when we're ready to do it. And also, we want to wait for Congress to come back so that we can hit the Capitol Building with the fourth plane, and that was the one that crashed in Pennsylvania.
FISHERWell, let's go hear from Kami (sp?) in Washington. Kami, it's your turn.
KAMIYes, Josh. My name is Kami, but I'm a kind of (unintelligible). I'm originally from Pakistan. And my real name is Mohammed Bazive. (sp?) I read your article. And my first question is, do you think that Pakistani intelligence, ISI intelligence bureau, they were being complacent about getting this guy, or it's just they didn't have resources to, you know, to go after him? And my second question is I live in Washington, D.C. ghetto part. There are so many black young kids who are being discriminated, even we have black (word?) in the White House.
KAMIBut these young guys don't go and start doing terrorism and blowing a building or pipeline or something like that. Why do you think that Muslim -- these Muslim are so inclined to take innocent life? I mean, I'm very frustrated, too, about U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, but it doesn't mean that I should do this kind of stupid thing. Does it have something to do with their culture, with their religion, with their society, or is it discrimination? I mean, discrimination is everywhere. It's a part of human condition.
MEYERRight. Well, I mean, I'll tackle the second question first. And, you know, I think that you can't use a broad brush to paint any culture or religion, and so I'm not going to do that here. I think that one thing that al-Qaida and KSM were successful in doing was getting a very, very small percentage of disaffected people and bringing them to Pakistan and having them go through the training process.
MEYERIn the book, we go through a couple of examples of that, how KSM would sit with somebody for a few days and talk to them and find out what their grievances were and help, you know, launch them as almost a, you know, a missile back at their own cultures. But, you know, that was more speaking towards KSM's charisma than, I think, than anything that you could say about a particular culture.
MEYERThe second -- the first question about the ISI -- and in the book, we -- there's a lot of information about that. When I interviewed the ISI back in November of 2002 about the hunt for KSM -- and this was, again, four months after -- excuse me, before he was captured -- you know, one of the very senior ISI guys said to me, we have the country so wired that you can't smoke a cigarette on any particular street corner without us knowing what brand it is.
MEYERAnd I said, well, if that's the case, then how did you not know who KSM was, and why can't you catch him right now? And I think that's still a good question. I think that there's a lot of concern that the ISI is helping harbor these people and train and deploy them.
FISHERAre there structural impediments that prevented CIA and FBI investigators from finding and getting KSM before 9/11? And have those been dealt with in any productive manner since then?
MEYERWell, I think some of them have, and I think, clearly, after 9/11, the FBI and the CIA realized that there were some tremendous problems institutionally that they needed to take care of. But, you know, at the end of the day, the FBI and the CIA are very different organizations. Somebody describes them as cats and dogs in the sense that dogs, you know -- well, that's -- you know, dogs are very obedient and follow the law, but the CIA, almost like cats.
MEYERThey're supposed to be operating in other countries and, in some cases, getting people to break their own laws of their own country and become spies for the United States. But what's more important is that the FBI is an agency that's supposed to solve crimes and gather evidence to be used in court. And the CIA is trying to get intelligence to stop future attacks. And those two things often have very competing agendas.
FISHERAnd you had these two agencies going after this guy in the years before 9/11. And then 9/11 happens, and, obviously, the folks who were going after him must have had some tremendous guilt about that. Is that true to this day?
MEYERYeah, I think so. I mean, one of the most compelling things in the book for me, doing the reporting, was when you find out that some of the people that had been hunting him before 9/11 had been warning their superiors that these guys are going to come back. You know, they were very concerned that they were going to come back and hit the World Trade Center again and finish what they started.
MEYERAnd so some of the agents who were hunting KSM, literally minutes after the first plane hit on the morning of 9/11, you know, one called the other one and said, you know, they did it. They, you know, they did just what we were worried they were going to do. And one of them was so upset that he was crying, and he put on one of his old raid jackets and drove from Florida all the way up to Ground Zero.
FISHERWe're talking to Josh Meyer. He's a reporter and co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University, and author of "Inside -- The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has spent the last years of his life down in Cuba, at the prison there.
FISHERAnd there, he has been subjected to the enhanced interrogation techniques that became so controversial. I gather he was water boarded some 180-odd times. What impact did that have, and what impact has that had on the other prisoners there and on the rest of the folks who were in his movement?
MEYERWell, you know, that's -- it's causing a lot of problems for the upcoming trial of KSM and the other guys. The water boarding actually happened overseas early on after his capture in 2003, and he was water boarded 183 times in one month. There were also a lot of other coercive interrogation techniques that were used, which many people call torture. But, you know, what's important is that, whatever the techniques that were used, you know, whether the evidence is going to be admissible in court or not remains to be seen.
MEYERI don't think any of the information gained from the CIA will be able to be used. But, you know, KSM also confessed to more than 30 plots, different ones around the world. And I think it's very important that the trial help articulate exactly what he did and what he didn't do.
FISHERAnd did he only confess to those after the torture, or was he proud of them and boasting about them?
MEYERNo, I mean, he -- one of the things that has sort of been lost in the, you know, the dustbin of history, I think, is that even before he was caught, KSM invited a reporter from Al Jazeera to come visit him in Karachi, and right almost in plain sight, he and Ramzi bin al-Shibh proceeded to tell this reporter, Yosri Fouda, that they were the ones who did 9/11 and how proud of it they were and how KSM says he was the one that cut off Daniel Pearl's head, the Wall Street journalist reporter's head, with his blessed right hand. So, you know, he's not shy about this.
FISHERAnd presumably his views have not changed during his confinement.
MEYERNo. We did get a very interesting letter from him. My co-author did a lot of traveling to places where he would talk to KSM's family members, and we were able to get some of his letters home from prison, which are really fascinating inside into the mind of KSM. And in one of them, one of the most recent ones, he, in some ways, is alluding to asking for forgiveness and saying that, you know, sometimes we do things we regret. But again, he is such an intelligent and manipulative guy that nobody knows if he really means it or if he is doing it for some ulterior motive.
FISHERAnd his wife or wives and children are still free and living where?
MEYERProbably Iran or some other parts of Baluchistan. In 2002, in September of 2002, on one of the many cases where they came within a hair's breadth of catching KSM, they did catch two of his young sons. And so they've had them in custody that -- since then. I mean, not...
FISHERIn Cuba as well?
MEYERNo, no, no, not the United States. I think they wanted to offload them as soon as possible and give them back to the Pakistanis, but his family has -- you know, you haven't seen any of them be arrested or incarcerated.
FISHERYou mention the trial that is now supposedly coming up in some months. Where does that stand, and is there some doubt about whether it'll actually happen?
MEYERWell, I think the Obama administration finally took an important step just last week, and they referred the charges to a judge. And that means that the Office of Military Commissions, which is a hybrid of prosecutors from the Justice Department and the Department of Defense, have 30 days in which to arraign KSM and the other guys. And then after that, there'll be a lot of legal motions back and forth, and hopefully a trial some time soon. The question is what kind of trial and, you know, what evidence is going to come out in it.
FISHERAnd do you expect that the government will seek to have capital punishment against him, and what -- is there a downside to that as far as making him more of a martyr around the world?
MEYERYes, I mean, they -- when they filed -- when they referred the charges last week, they referred it as a death penalty case. And so what will happen is the jury, which is all military officers, needs to vote to convict them, and then it needs to vote for the death penalty. But, you know, if you ask any counterterrorism agent out there, they'll tell you that the worst thing we could is to execute these guys because it would give them exactly what they want, which is martyrdom status. And it would create a potentially another whole generation of terrorists who want to follow on their footsteps.
FISHERHow old is KSM at this point?
MEYERHe's almost my age. He's -- actually, I'm a few years older. I always thought there's a lot of similarities in terms of, like, this guy is my age, you know, how different we are, but he's 47 right now.
FISHEROK. We have to leave it there. Josh Meyer is the author of "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." Thanks very much for joining us. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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