Khalid Shaikh Mohammed looked more like a loser in a T shirt than a modern-day Mephistopheles. But "KSM," as he is always referred to in FBI documents, held the key to unlock the biggest mystery of the war on terror: is Al Qaeda operating inside America?
The answer, according to KSM's confessions and the intense U.S. investigation that followed, is yes. It is not known where the authorities took KSM after he was captured, looking paunchy and pouty, in a 3 a.m. raid in Pakistan on March 1. As Al Qaeda's director of global operations, KSM was by far the most valuable prize yet captured by American intelligence and its various allies in the post-9-11 manhunt. He probably now resides in an exceedingly spartan jail cell in some friendly Arab country, perhaps Jordan.
He has probably not been tortured, at least in the traditional sense. Interrogation methods, usually involving sleep deprivation, have become much more refined. He probably did not tell all he knew. Qaeda chieftains are schooled in resisting interrogation, and informed sources said that at first KSM offered up nothing but evasions and disinformation. But confronted by the contents of his computer and his cell-phone records, he began speaking more truthfully. According to intelligence documents obtained by NEWSWEEK, many of the names, places and plots he revealed have checked out. After 9-11, Osama bin Laden's terror network "was clearly here," a top U.S. law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK. "It was organized, it was being directed by the leaders of Al Qaeda." Though rumors of sleeper cells have floated about for months, it is a startling revelation that Al Qaeda's chief of operations was directly running operatives inside the United States. Thanks to some real breakthroughs by the Feds, the Qaeda plots do not appear to have made it past the planning stage. The inside story of the war at home on Al Qaeda, reconstructed by NEWSWEEK reporters from intelligence documents and interviews with top officials, has been marked by good luck and good work. Still, no one in the intelligence community is declaring victory.
KSM revealed an overhaul of Al Qaeda's approach to penetrating America. The 9-11 hijackers were all foreign nationals--mostly Saudis, led by an Egyptian--who infiltrated the United States by obtaining student or tourist visas. To foil the heightened security after 9-11, Al Qaeda began to rely on operatives who would be harder to detect. They recruited U.S. citizens or people with legitimate Western passports who could move freely in the United States. They used women and family members as "support personnel." And they made an effort to find African-American Muslims who would be sympathetic to Islamic extremism. Using "mosques, prisons and universities throughout the United States," according to the documents, KSM reached deep into the heartland, lining up agents in Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, and Peoria, Ill. The Feds have uncovered at least one KSM-run cell that could have done grave damage to the United States.
It is somewhat reassuring that, so far, at least, the FBI has not uncovered any plots to use chemical or biological or nuclear weapons against America. Al Qaeda chiefs, especially bin Laden's ghoulish No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have shown a strong interest in the past in obtaining weapons of mass destruction. The terror network allegedly dispatched a Brooklyn-born Hispanic Catholic who converted to Islam, Jose Padilla, to scout out the possibility of building a radiological device, a so-called dirty bomb (arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport in early 2002, he is being held as an "enemy combatant" in a military jail). But none of the operatives caught up in the web spun by KSM appears to have been working on a weapon that could wipe out an entire city.
On the other hand, the plotters were apparently scheming to take down the Brooklyn Bridge, destroy an airliner, derail a train and blow up a whole series of gas stations. Fortunately, American law enforcement has been able to nip these plots in the bud. The methods used by the G-men to crack the Qaeda cells, while effective and understandable under the circumstances, raise uncomfortable questions about legal means and ends.
Many of the Qaeda operatives have not been arrested or charged with a crime. The Bush Justice Department is reluctant to throw terror suspects into the American criminal-justice system, where they can avail themselves of lawyers and use their rights to tie prosecutors into knots (the alleged "20th hijacker" of the 9-11 plots, Zacarias Moussaoui, has succeeded in bringing his criminal prosecution to a grinding halt). Rather, the Justice Department has essentially been working in the shadows. FBI agents confronted some of the suspects directly and convinced them that it would be in their interest to work with the government without getting their own lawyers. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently told Congress that the Justice Department had obtained criminal plea agreements--"many under seal"--with more than 15 individuals who are cooperating with the government, leading to "critical intelligence" about Qaeda safe houses and recruiting tactics. But others--including some of those identified by KSM--may have been "turned" by the Feds. "You can't say they've been arrested," said one official. Some of the terror plotters confronted by the bureau have been secretly squirreled away in hotel rooms, living around the clock under FBI surveillance and working with the authorities to identify other Qaeda plots inside the country.
The cooperating witnesses have "given us a few leads" about "where to look," said one official, but, as yet, no major finds. That may be because Al Qaeda, like all successful terrorist organizations, is carefully "compartmented." Different cells are kept apart. Some top investigators have a nagging suspicion that KSM just fed his interrogators the small fry to divert investigators from the really big--and deadly--plots. "The problem is," said the senior official, "we don't know what we don't know."
Still, the Feds have learned a great deal more than the public record suggests. Ashcroft routinely gives lurid speeches about the enemy within. But the evidence from criminal prosecutions has been underwhelming. The Buffalo Six (later, Seven) rounded up as a terror cell looked more like some hapless, jobless American Muslims who had been lured into a Qaeda training camp on a pilgrimage to Pakistan. The threat level has bobbed back and forth between Yellow (Elevated) and Orange (High) four times in the last year. Alternately fearful and cynical, the public has become just plain weary.
But the "threat matrix" presented to President George W. Bush every morning at his daily intelligence briefing has been cause for genuine concern. As the Feds, working with foreign police, captured top-level Qaeda operatives after 9-11, interrogations and electronic eavesdropping revealed some scary plans. Abu Zubaydah, the Palestinian terrorist who ran Al Qaeda's training-camp network in Afghanistan, told interrogators that the bin Laden network was deeply interested in bringing down "the bridge in the Godzilla movie." That sci-fi fantasy led New York police to scramble to guard the Brooklyn Bridge every time there is a terror alert. Put under the hot lights, other Qaeda lieutenants named names and pointed to likely targets.
It was the seizure of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in March that allowed the Feds to really begin to connect the dots. KSM is a fanatical and committed terrorist who has spent years planning the mass murder of Americans. Long before 9-11, he had planned (along with his nephew Ramzi Yousef, a plotter in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) a fantastic exercise called Project Bojinka (Serbo-Croatian for "big bang") to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific Ocean. KSM's more recent pet proj-ect has been to disrupt the American economy by attacking its infrastructure. He wanted to destroy key transportation nodes--bridges, planes, trains and fuel supplies.
Indeed, KSM was planning to time some of these attacks, possibly against gas stations in New York and Washington, to coincide with the 9-11 attacks, but Osama bin Laden himself vetoed the idea, according to intelligence reports obtained by NEWSWEEK. Bin Laden was apparently worried about maintaining operational security for the spectacular hijackings. After 9-11, KSM revived the plans to attack a series of gas stations. According to Justice Department documents describing KSM's interrogation, he "tasked" a former resident of Baltimore named Majid Khan to "move forward" on Khan's plan to destroy several U.S. gas stations by "simultaneously detonating explosives in the stations' underground storage tanks." KSM was intimately involved in the details. When Khan reported that the storage tanks were unprotected and easy to attack, KSM wanted to be sure that explosive charges would cause a massive eruption of flame and destruction.
Khan--a "confessed AQ [al Qaeda] member" who was apparently captured in Pakistan, according to intelligence sources--traveled at least briefly to the United States, where he tried unsuccessfully to seek asylum. His family members, intelligence documents say, are longtime Baltimore residents and own gas stations in that city (a detail NEWSWEEK was able to confirm). KSM told interrogators that he and Khan discussed a plan to use a Karachi-based import-export business to smuggle explosives into the United States.
Khan looked for more help from people who might escape the notice of investigators. KSM told interrogators that a woman named Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S. visa holder who has lived in the United States for a decade, rented a post-office box to help Khan establish his U.S. identity. Siddiqui was supposed to support "other AQ operatives as they entered the United States," according to the Feds' description of the plot. Siddiqui's estranged husband, identified by informed sources as Mohammad Amjan Khan, had purchased body armor, night-vision goggles and a variety of military manuals to send to Pakistan. He apparently returned these items after being interviewed by the FBI. Both Siddiqui and Khan were described as "medical professionals." Siddiqui fled to Pakistan, where she was reportedly arrested.
KSM told his interrogators that he wanted "two or three African-American Muslim converts" to carry out his operation to blow up the gas stations. Majid Khan told the FBI that he had seen "two African Americans (identified as such by their American accents) during a 2000 meeting in Pakistan with KSM and other AQ operatives."
KSM had more diabolical plans for another of Khan's American relatives, a commercial truckdriver named Iyman Faris (a.k.a. Mohammad Rauf). The truckdriver is a naturalized U.S. citizen, a longtime resident of Columbus, Ohio. His ex-wife told friends that in hindsight she finds it disturbing that her husband, a devout Muslim, had long expressed an interest in learning how to fly. He spent hours, she said, reading magazines about ultralight aircraft, gliders with small engines that can be piloted almost anywhere. The order to study ultralight aircraft came directly from KSM, according to intelligence documents.
The Qaeda operations chief told interrogators that he had a specific assignment for the truckdriver. He wanted Faris to case the Brooklyn Bridge. KSM also instructed Faris to obtain "gas cutters" (presumably, metal-cutting torches) that could be used to cut the Brooklyn Bridge's suspension wires. And more: the truckdriver was assigned to obtain "torque tools" to bend railroad tracks, the better to send a passenger train hurtling off the rails. And still more: Faris recommended driving a small truck with explosives beneath a commercial airliner as it sat on the tarmac. A licensed truckdriver, he said, could easily penetrate airport security.
None of these plots ever came off. Faris has disappeared. No one was home when NEWSWEEK knocked on the door of his apartment in a run-down section of Columbus last week. But as recently as last month, public records show, he paid a $200 fine and got his driver's license restored after being arrested for speeding in Delaware County. (His license recently expired, say Ohio state officials; he has not tried to renew it.)
Qaeda operatives seem to be dangerous drivers. Faris was busted for speeding in 1996 and for "failure to control his vehicle" in 1997, when he flipped his vehicle on a highway exit ramp, local officials say. An arrest for drunken driving marred the otherwise clean record of another suspected sleeper agent whose story is a chilling example of Al Qaeda's foothold in the American heartland.
During his interrogation, KSM identified a man named Ali S. Al-Marri as "the point of contact for AQ operatives arriving in the US for September 11 follow-on operations." KSM described Al-Marri as "the perfect sleeper agent because he has studied in the United States, had no criminal record, and had a family with whom he could travel." Actually, Al-Marri had been charged with driving under the influence in Peoria, Ill., in 1990. The Qatari national had returned to the United States on Sept. 10, 2001, to pick up a graduate degree in computer information systems from Peoria's Bradley University. He was accused by the FBI of phoning an alleged Qaeda operative in the United Arab Emirates, Qaeda paymaster Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, and lying about it that same December. Al-Marri's apartment was filled with Islamic jihadist materials. His computer included bookmarked Web sites for hazardous chemicals, computer hacking and fake IDs, according to court documents. Bookmarks in an almanac marked entries for dams, reservoirs and railroads. U.S. officials were outraged when the Saudi Embassy helped Al-Marri's wife obtain a passport to leave the United States in November (U.S. officials say she was still under subpoena; Saudi lawyers disagree). Al-Marri, who pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to investigators and credit-card fraud, is in prison in Peoria, awaiting trial.
Intelligence records obtained by NEWSWEEK list other Qaeda operatives who may be hiding out somewhere in America. "KSM has identified Adnan el Shukri Jumah, a Saudi born permanent US resident alien as an operative with standing permission to attack targets in the United States that had been previously approved by Usama bin Laden," reads one entry in a Homeland Security document. "El Shukri Jumah lived in the US for six years and received an associate's degree from a Florida college. He reportedly surveilled targets in New York, as well as the Panama Canal." Osama's made man has apparently vanished.
Intelligence officials say, however, that they are in some ways more worried about lone wolves who have only distant ties to Al Qaeda. "My concern is what we're seeing in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank," one top official told NEWSWEEK--the solo fanatic suicide bomber, or, in intelligence parlance, a "non-aligned mujahedin." These are the lost souls who wandered through Al Qaeda's Afghan training camps during the '90s and have gone on to create their own cells. They may pose a more imminent threat than the kind of top-of-the-line, well-trained operatives who carried out the complex, almost balletic 9-11 hijack plan.
Canada seems to be a haven for these folk. In late May, Canadian authorities finally moved to expel a pizza-parlor operator and Moroccan refugee named Adil Charkaoui under newly enacted provisions of an antiterrorist law. Charkaoui, who admits he traveled to Pakistan for "religious training," has long been tied to Ahmed Ressam, the alleged terrorist who was arrested as he entered the United States from Canada at the time of the 2000 Millennium celebrations. In his car were the makings of a bomb, which, he later confessed, was intended for an attack on the Los Angeles airport. Charkaoui, a martial-arts expert, has also been linked to the 9-11 plotters as well as to a plot to blow up an Air France jetliner.
American authorities fret that the Canadians allow sleepers to walk the streets until they are compelled to take legal action. Bush Justice Department officials have not been so reticent. By putting suspects in what one top law-enforcement official described to NEWSWEEK as "a kind of limbo detention"--essentially living with FBI agents who could charge them at any time--the Feds are pushing the legal envelope. "We're making this up as we go along," said the official. "It's a brave new world out there." When FBI agents confront Qaeda suspects, they give them a choice: cooperate or face the consequences, which could include a life in prison and possibly even the death penalty. (Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock declined to discuss any specific cases, but said that the department has deployed legal tactics that have been "historically used in organized crime and drug cases and proven effective in breaking down conspiracies.") One lever the Feds currently lack is the threat of expulsion from the United States. Some Bush administration officials would like to amend the law to allow prosecutors to strip terror suspects of their naturalized citizenship and deport them.
The FBI cannot hope to find every Qaeda operative, and certainly not every Islamic fanatic who wishes to conduct a jihad against America. Curiously, the best protection may be the soft power of daily life in the land of the free. One intelligence official, wondering aloud why America has not been attacked since 9-11 despite the clear intentions of bin Laden's terror network, speculated that the sleeper agents just plain fall asleep. "A lot of these guys lose the jihadi, desert spirit," said the official. "They get families, they get jobs, and they lose the fire in the belly. Welcome to America."