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Al-Qaida Suspect Admits to Plotting 9/11, Other Attacks

March 15, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Behind this fence at the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the long-suspected mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, made his chilling confessions.

Mohammed, a 41-year-old Pakistani and longtime al-Qaida operative, testified Saturday before a closed-door military tribunal looking at whether he’s being properly held as an enemy combatant. He did not have a lawyer, but spoke at times through a military officer acting as his “personal representative.”

In the 26-page partially censored transcript, Mohammed admitted he had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden to conduct jihad and was “operational director for the organizing, planning, follow-up and execution of the 9/11 operation.”

Later, in broken English, Mohammed added, “For sure, I’m American enemies.”

But he compared himself and bin Laden to earlier revolutionaries, including George Washington, saying, “He is doing the same thing. He is just fighting. He needs his independence. So when we say we are enemy combatant, that right. We are.”

He said he wasn’t happy that 3,000 people, including children, died on 9/11, but he compared them to innocents killed in the Iraq war, saying, “Because war, for sure, there will be victims.”

Mohammed also said he was responsible for more than two dozen other attacks and plots, including the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, and plots to kill President Clinton and former President Carter. He also said he decapitated journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

Mohammed was captured by U.S. forces in March 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He was held at a secret CIA prison abroad, where, he suggested Saturday, he was mistreated. He was transferred to Guantanamo last September.

Mohammed’s confessions could be used against him if he’s tried for war crimes at a later date.

Assessing the confession

Ron Suskind
Author
[T]here's a lot of bravado in this thing. It's quite unsettling for Americans to read or to react to. For a jihadist who feels disempowered, this is the opposite. This is tonic for them.

MARGARET WARNER: And, now, an assessment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's confessions. We get that from Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission. He's now a history professor at the University of Virginia.

And Ron Suskind, author of "The One Percent Doctrine," a critique of the U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism.

Welcome to you both.

Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission, in fact, had quite a bit of this information in its own report. I think you all saw some intelligence interrogation transcripts. What did you find revealing about the transcript that came out about what he said on Saturday?

PHILIP ZELIKOW, Former Director, 9/11 Commission: It reinforces the picture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that the commission had in its report. And so dramatically, through his own words, again displays someone who is at war with the United States and is prepared to carry out mass murder in order to achieve his objectives.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you find new in this?

RON SUSKIND, Author, "The One Percent Doctrine": Well, you know, this is sort of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's debut, of sorts. He is saying, "Here is my position," and speaking to his own constituency, which is not just here in America, but the world of jihad. And when I read this, I think about what a jihadist might be thinking as they read it in the past few days and how they'll respond.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning?

RON SUSKIND: Well, there's a lot of bravado in this thing. It's quite unsettling for Americans to read or to react to. For a jihadist who feels disempowered, this is the opposite. This is tonic for them.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is unbowed in this statement for the most part and, in fact, part of this is the hearts-and-minds struggle we talk about it. He's engaging in it now.

Mohammed's role in the attacks

Philip Zelikow
Former Executive Dir., 9/11 Commission
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was involved...in a very large number of operations. He'd been a freelance terrorist, really, almost working on his own and with his relatives attacking American interests, really going back to 1991, 1992, if not earlier.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Philip Zelikow, he, of course, takes all the credit, as he sees it, for all of these attacks and other attempts. Could one man have had that central a role in al-Qaida? How credible do you think his claims are?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: They're pretty credible. He probably is involved to some degree in all or almost all of the operations he's discussing. He's not the central puppet master and mastermind of every single one of those operations, but he's undoubtedly involved in a number of them.

He was in a position in al-Qaida, by '98, '99, where a lot of these plans passed across his desk in one way or another. He worked at that time for al-Qaida's military commander, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, Mohamed Atta, who was killed after 9/11 by an American air strike.

But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was involved, at least peripherally, in a very large number of operations. He'd been a freelance terrorist, really, almost working on his own and with his relatives attacking American interests, really going back to 1991, 1992, if not earlier. He was at least somewhat involved in the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Ron Suskind, that he probably at least had passing knowledge of most of these plots? This isn't just self-aggrandizing.

RON SUSKIND: Yes, I agree with Philip's assessment. I think there's some of that. He's a guy with a flair for self-promotion; he's always been that way, in a media sense, as well.

But for the most part, where he was fitted in the al-Qaida structure, he could have at least passing involvement in almost all of these things. I think another thing it shows is often how long the planning arc goes for many operations, as we've often said. It's years, often, before the operational moment, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's involvement seems to indicate that that's the case.

The credibility of the assertions

Ron Suskind
Author
[W]hat you have here, rather, is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed using his moment on the world stage, and he's going to continue to do that as we go forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Philip Zelikow, this procedure of these combatant status review panels has been criticized by civil libertarians and lawyers, saying and pointing out that, not only does he not have a lawyer, that he couldn't present witnesses that he wanted to present, that the tribunal is going to also consider classified evidence he won't see. He seems to suggest he was abused.

When you put that all together, does that undermine the credibility of these confessions and assertions that he made?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Two things, one right off the bat, is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed taped a television broadcast before he was captured to brag about having masterminded the 9/11 attack. So his claims about 9/11 couldn't possibly be the result of his interrogations because he was bragging about that publicly before he was caught.

It's another thing that's useful for your viewers to understand, is that this particular hearing that they're reading about in the papers is not part of the process that will lead to his trial for mass murder. This is a process that all the intake in Guantanamo includes.

Everybody coming to Guantanamo gets a hearing to determine, are you an enemy combatant whom we should hold under the law of armed conflict, as someone who's at war against us? And this is a hearing to determine that.

What you have in this hearing, which is not part of whatever trial for war crimes he'll eventually get, what this hearing really is, it's under the law of armed conflict. You catch a soldier in the field; you want to lock them up until hostilities are over. So how do you adapt that principle to the war on terror?

What they've done to adapt it to the war on terror is create something that's not a trial, because it's under the law of armed conflict for an enemy combatant, but it does afford the accused some due process so that people have to look at what evidence they have about him. He has a chance to be heard about that evidence.

And there's a periodic review of that evidence to see if this person still poses a risk. That's something that they do for everyone who's at Guantanamo.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ron Suskind, if they're trying to determine if this man still sees himself as an enemy of the United States, certainly, as you said, this goes back to something you said earlier, what comes through here is completely unrepentant, unbowed.

RON SUSKIND: Sure. I think we have a forest for the trees problem here. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is clearly expecting he'll be executed or something close to that, a long prison term, forever in prison, and what you have here, rather, is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed using his moment on the world stage, and he's going to continue to do that as we go forward.

I think the statement, though, is quite revealing. I mean, on one hand, here he's quoting George Washington, and the British capturing Washington is equivalent to me being captured, all sorts of things like that. And then the same moment, a moment later, he's talking about cutting off Danny Pearl's head.

I think that really shows the odd and challenging character of these detainees. You know, on one hand, they will offer us rhetoric that maybe is disarming or troubling. As one FBI guy said, "Well, he'll quote Jefferson to you, but if you're alone with him, he'll then stab you in the throat."

These folks have a very different view as to their obligations than almost anybody we have fought against up to now. They believe they are religiously guided to essentially destroy those who oppose them.

New intelligence unlikely

Philip Zelikow
Former Executive Dir., 9/11 Commission
He's been wrung pretty dry. He no longer has, I think, significant new intelligence value.

MARGARET WARNER: So that brings up the question, Phil Zelikow, it's been four years since he was captured. As you read this, does this sound like someone who is still of value to be interrogated, in other words, that he still has insights into either the way al-Qaida operates or the thinking behind it?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: He's been wrung pretty dry. He no longer has, I think, significant new intelligence value.

I think the process of bringing him to trial for 9/11 may be of great value to the American people and to the world, because we may learn some additional details about the 9/11 attack that go beyond what the commission was able to report on a few years ago.

But let me underscore, too, that a lot of people who commit mass murder for political reasons glorify themselves as being soldiers in their own kind of war.

But, really, when you have a soldier in such a war who says that he cuts off someone's head out in front of a television camera or kills thousands of people deliberately and indiscriminately, the people who rally to that sort of person are telling you more about themselves than they're telling you about the justice of that war or that cause.

MARGARET WARNER: And the picture of al-Qaida -- and there aren't lots of details in this, we have to say, certainly about 9/11 and the planning of any of these -- but, still, the picture that emerges, Ron Suskind, in this of al-Qaida, how applicable is that to the al-Qaida today? We keep hearing that, in fact, that al-Qaida has become more of a franchise operation than it was in his era.

RON SUSKIND: Right. You know, al-Qaida has gone through stages. This is the old al-Qaida structure. It largely has been diminished and dispersed. It has reconstituted itself in some fashion. We've talked about that; that's been reported.

But, as well, you have what I call Amway terrorism. You've got the self-activated cells around the world. They can fund themselves. They are self-supporting, in terms of the weaponry they can get their hands on.

And, interestingly, a lot of it is a signaling system from bin Laden or Zawahiri to these cells. And KSM is involved in that right now, this list of various targets. In a way, that's saying, you know, this is on our wish list.

MARGARET WARNER: They're still out there?

RON SUSKIND: They're still out there, and it may be out there somewhere, it ought to be on your wish list, too.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ron Suskind and Phil Zelikow, thank you both.