Inside the Mind of the Mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

A man whose visions of mayhem gave pause to even Osama bin Laden.

The killing of Osama bin Laden, and the ensuing nationwide expressions of joy and relief, stand in stark contrast to the reaction to the 2003 capture of “superterrorist” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. A simple thought experiment, says Richard Miniter, should correct that imbalance: imagine bin Laden were the one caught in 2003 instead of KSM, as he is known.

“KSM is different than bin Laden in that he can dream up major attacks, and while running the organization he would have access to its resources, its trained personnel—we would have seen many more 9/11-style attacks. I don’t mean the same technique, but the same lethality,” Miniter said in an interview this week. Miniter is the author of the new book Mastermind: The Many Faces of the 9/11 Architect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

In speaking to analysts, Miniter said, KSM’s capture was always referred to as a war-winning moment—former House intelligence chairman and later CIA chief Porter Goss even compared it to the liberation of Paris in World War II.

“I don’t think the public really sees the value in capturing KSM, that’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book,” he said.

Indeed, in the book Miniter recounts the first meeting between KSM and bin Laden. “After the small talk, KSM presented a battery of outrageous ideas to bin Laden: another plan to kill the pope, this time in Africa; a plan to hijack planes and fly them into buildings on America’s two most populous coasts; plans for London, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong, and on and on…. After a few hours, bin Laden politely declined to back any of KSM’s plans but asked him to join Al Qaeda and move his family from the Baluch region of Iran to Kandahar, Afghanistan.”

KSM actually declined that invitation, but it gave bin Laden a preview of what it was going to be like eventually working with a man who was both ruthless and tactically brilliant. One plan that bin Laden actually liked was KSM’s idea to recruit a Saudi air force pilot to commandeer a fighter jet and strafe the Israeli port/resort city of Eilat, possibly killing hundreds.

“And that plot was relatively uncomplicated, and would’ve succeeded and it would’ve been devastating and generated headlines throughout the world,” Miniter said.

The book spends considerable time on an important but often overlooked part of KSM’s life—his childhood in Kuwait and college education in America. What may surprise readers is the fact that much of KSM’s radicalization took place in North Carolina, first at Chowan University and then at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in the mid-1980s. KSM was actually already inclined toward the most severe interpretations of Islamic law (he wouldn’t even allow himself to be photographed), but his lack of English skills and the universities’ nonexistent attitude toward cultural integration led to his alienation from his fellow students. He spent most of his free time with other Arab immigrants and encouraged the school’s Muslims to follow his strict version of Islam. He and his friends were known as “the Mullahs.”

“He may have not known the term at the time, but when he arrived in America he was a Salafi,” Miniter said. “And so that’s why he felt very comfortable policing the other foreign students, so they didn’t violate obscure religious rules.”

He also had a God complex, a lack of interest in any serious philosophical or political discussions, and a growing resentment toward the Americans who admired Israel. “He thought he had the truth. And if you were smart you’d listen to him and if you were not smart he’d kill you—that kind of approach.”

And the college’s lack of concern for such self-segregation helped give KSM the impression that America lacked social cohesion. In fact, once in custody KSM described the America that he thought he knew—a loose federation of states with no uniting culture or character. It’s why he thought it would be so easy to attack the U.S. and get away with it.

“Unlike in Arab lands, he never felt any restrictions,” Miniter said. “We call that freedom, but he thought that was weakness.”

One thing he did learn about Americans was a willingness to believe in coincidences—a perception that inspired a strategic trick that became a mark of KSM’s attacks on the U.S.

The first World Trade Center bombing was plagued by amateurishness. The vehicle that carried the bomb still had its VIN number on it. One of the bombers, Mohammed Salameh, reported the vehicle stolen and demanded his deposit back. When Salameh showed up at the Ryder leasing outfit to claim his deposit return, the FBI were waiting for him.

“That,” Miniter writes, “was what [WTC bomb planner] Ramzi Yousef wanted. His capture would be another helpful distraction.”

The subsequent investigation avoided the question of whether there may have been a broader conspiracy or a foreign source of money funding the attacks. It helps you avoid the extra scrutiny, Miniter said, if you look like unsophisticated amateurs.

“We are naïve enough to believe that there are coincidences, that there are people who simply wake up one morning and say: You know, I’m tired of America and I’m going to let them have it,” he said. “That’s just really not the way it works—all of these things involve training, planning, targeting.”

Miniter also said that one lesson from KSM’s experience was that America behaves as though the world is “a schoolyard without a bully,” when in reality the world has several. “And bullies multiply when they get away with it.”

One consequence of this is that states like Pakistan harbor our bitterest enemies, such as Osama bin Laden, even though they are ostensibly our allies in the war on terror. “They don’t fear us,” Miniter said. “They do fear the various terror networks operating inside their country.” For good reason: Miniter points out that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s late wife was Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by Islamist terrorists in 2007.

Miniter also covers new ground in the book; for example, two al-Qaeda terror plots that were foiled but never made public. And he fleshes out a compelling case that KSM was behind the murder of Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane. Miniter talks about what went wrong with Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and how it led to one of the biggest scoops of all time for al-Jazeera. And the American intelligence work that led to the capture of several high-value detainees reads like a spy novel—and is a reminder that truth is often stranger than fiction.

The fortuitous timing of the book will also encourage those celebrating bin Laden’s death to appreciate the significance of the man we’ve had in custody now for eight years: the Mastermind.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.