How the US captured the real 9/11 mastermind

Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer take us deep inside the hunt for KSM

The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed | By Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer | Little, Brown and Company | 368 pages, $27.99

Terry McDermott’s Perfect Soldiers, released in 2005, did not get the attention it deserved. At the time, it was the most complete biography available of the 9/11 hijackers, far exceeding the efforts of the government’s 9/11 Commission. McDermott’s book was largely superseded by Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning The Looming Tower, but it remains a valuable document.

Now McDermott—a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR—has teamed with Josh Meyer to produce the most comprehensive book on the man most responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (or “KSM”). Meyer and McDermott are both former Los Angeles Times reporters, and they have unearthed many new materials, including classified documents obtained through FOIA requests. The reporting is folded into a gripping, well-told narrative. The Hunt for KSM reads something like a thriller, with the authors ratcheting up the suspense and tension even though we already know how the story ends.

Although Osama bin Laden was the public face of the September 11 massacre, McDermott and Meyer persuasively argue that KSM was the real mastermind behind 9/11, as the subtitle says. In one video, bin Laden himself praised KSM (by a code name, Mukhtar) as the architect of the attacks. Bin Laden had the funding, but it was KSM who thought to use planes as weapons against the United States, KSM who screened and trained the hijackers, and KSM who monitored everything connected to the attacks. As McDermott and Meyer write, “He oversaw the 9/11 plot.”

So why did bin Laden become the icon of terror? Largely because the US government and media knew far more about him. One of the fascinating themes throughout The Hunt for KSM is how little was known about Mohammed before the 9/11 attacks. Those that did understand the threat he posed were marginalized. They include three FBI agents who are the heroes of this book: Ali Soufan, Stephen Gaudin, and Frank Pelligrino. The men clearly provided much of McDermott and Meyer’s material, and at times their portrayal seems a little self-serving. But there is no doubt that they knew far more about KSM than did virtually anybody else in the government.

Instead, most counterterrorism efforts were devoted specifically to bin Laden and Al Qaeda—of which KSM wasn’t a member. He had refused to pledge an oath to the organization before 9/11, and found Osama meddlesome. KSM shunned publicity, but bin Laden gave interviews to western journalists and formally declared war against the United States. Almost as soon as the planes hit—and in some cases before—the press was reporting on the hijackers’ affiliation with Al Qaeda. But bin Laden only supplied the men (and some of them weren’t any good). KSM trained them and coordinated their efforts. Even had bin Laden been killed before 9/11, it is still possible the attacks would have occurred (though probably not on that date).

Another theme of the book is the CIA’s apparent inability to work closely with the FBI—which the two authors document in painstaking detail. The CIA insisted on interrogating high-value subjects, even though its agents had no expertise in interrogation. Mohammed was brutally and repeatedly tortured by CIA agents, which led him to make many false claims about future and past attacks. “The torture and interrogations produced more information than investigators could competently track down,” Meyer and McDermott write. “Much, if not most, of the information was bad—made up, KSM would later say, so the torture would stop.” He later bragged to the Red Cross that he invented a ton of information in order to satisfy the interrogators. Much of what he did know, he kept to himself. He said, for instance, that didn’t know the Kuwait-Pakistani courier who eventually led the CIA to Bin Laden. It was later learned the courier had been a protégé of KSM’s for years.

The FBI was prepared to begin asking KSM pertinent, specific questions based on their intense study of the man, but instead inexperienced CIA agents were given the job, much to the country’s detriment. In 2009, President Obama finally placed the FBI in charge of interrogating high-value terrorists, which the bureau has important experience with, having looked after the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.

If there is one flaw in McDermott and Meyer’s book, it is its failure to discuss the worldview of policymakers in the years before and after the 9/11 attacks. The Clinton administration pursued bin Laden vigorously prior to 9/11, but it was reluctant to take serious military action on a man who, after all, was largely unknown to the American people because he had not yet attacked them. The George W. Bush administration downgraded the threat of terrorism and deprived the intelligence community of badly needed resources, mistakenly focused as it was on the alleged threat posed to the U.S. by states such as Iraq and Iran. Especially in the chapters on the two years leading up to the 9/11 attacks, this context would have been useful.

Such quibbles aside, The Hunt For KSM is a valuable document. Future writers will need to pore through its findings, and readers will find it a horrifying, thrilling read.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. Tags: , , , , ,