erik lundegaard

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the “Just a Bunch of Guys” Theory of Al Qaeda

I've said it before: If you're going to pay for any magazine in this freebie-content world, particularly a general interest magazine, get The New Yorker. Their Sept. 13th issue is a case in point. Writer Terry McDermott give us a startlingly good, startlingly detailed profile of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and the cause of much fear, in the U.S. press if not in the U.S., because of talk he would get his day in court in New York City. If McDermott's article isn't part of the conversation yet it's because it's not online, or it's only online in an abstract, which means it can't be copied and then disposed of. It also means you have to go get the magazine your own damn self.

The takeaway: We tend to think our enemies as united but they're not, any more than a Bush administration of Dick Cheney and Colin Powell was united, any more than the United States of America is united. We tend to think of Al Qaeda as an international terrorist organization when it may just be “a bunch of guys.” This, too: After nine years, we still don't know who our enemies are.


Insofar as we know Mohammed, we see him as a brilliant behind-the-scenes tactician and a resolute idealogue. As it turns out, he is earthy, slick in a way, but naive, and seemingly motivated as much by pathology as ideology. [Al Jazeera reporter Yosri] Fouda describes Mohammed's Arabic as crude and colloquial and his knowledge of Islamic texts as almost nonexistent. A journalist who observed Mohammed's apparearance at one of the Guantanamo hearings likened his voluble performance to that of a Pakistani Jackie Mason. A college classmate said that he was an eager participant in impromptu skits and plays. A man who knew him from a mosque in Doha talked about his quick wit and chatty, glad-handing style. He was an operator...

Mohammed's parents moved to Kuwait from Pakistan in the 1950s....[where he] was born on April 14, 1965... He and his nephews attended Fahaheel Secondary School... [He] was a superior student... He was also rebellious; he told interrogators that he and his nephew Abdul Basit Abdul Karim (later internationally known as Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center) once tore down the Kuwaiti flag from atop their schoolhouse...

In January 1984, Mohammed, travelling on a Pakistani passport, arrived in tiny, remote Murfreesboro, North Carolina, to attend Chowan College, a two-year school that was advertised abroad by Baptist missionaries...  Arab students who were there at the time said they were the butt of jokes and harassment, in the anti Muslim era that followed the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, in 1979. The local boys called them Abbie Dhabies... They were required, along with all the other students, to attend a weekly Christian chapel service... Mohammed developed a dislike for the U.S. in his time here. He told investigators that he had little contact with Americans in college, but found them to be debauched and racist...

[In] 1986, both he and his nephew graduated with engineering degrees. Mohammed returned home to Kuwait... unable to find work...

[During the Afghanistan War against the Soviet Union], Mohammed and his brother Abed went to work for Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of Ittihad e-Islami, one of the Afghan-refugee political parties headquartered in Peshawar [Pakistan]...

In 1991, [Mohammed's nephew] Basit got in touch with Abdul Hakim Murad, a fellow-Baluchi and a boyhood friend from Kuwait, who was then in the U.S., training as a pilot. Basit told him that he wanted to attack Israel, but thought it too difficult. He would attack America instead. He asked Murad to suggest potential Jewish targets in the United States... “I told him the World Trade Center,” Murad later told investigators...

In Karachi [Pakistan], Basit had introduced his pilot friend, Murad, to Mohammed... Mohammed interrogated Murad about flying. Murad, the licensed pilot, at one point suggested to Basit dive-bombing a plane into C.I.A. headquarters...

The National Security Council staff in the Clinton White House wanted to pursue Mohammed... The C.I.A. was noncommital. The Pentagon objected vigorously... Instead, the State Department tried to negotiate with the Qataris... By the time the team arrived, Mohammed was gone; someone had apparently warned him that the Americans were coming...

[Mohammed] didn't want to join Al Qaeda, he later told his interrogators, but merely sought resources to fund a spectacular attack against the United States....

Mohammed's initial proposal was to hijack a single airplane and crash it, as Abdul Murad had suggested, into C.I.A. headquarters. Bin Laden dismissed this target as inconsequential. So Mohammed proposed hijacking ten airlines in the United States, some on each coast. The plotters would crash nine of them, and Mohammed would triumphantly land the tenth, disembark, and give a speech explaining what he had done and why. Bin Laden thought that the plan was too complicated. It  was not until late 1999 that he approved a somewhat less ambitious proposal: the 9/11 plan....

A Pakistani Jackie Mason

Posted at 06:36 AM on Tue. Sep 14, 2010 in category Politics  
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