GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will appear in a Guantanamo Bay courtroom this week, more than 18 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks he is alleged to have masterminded and a year before he will finally face a jury.
In the nearly two decades since 19 al Qaeda terrorists crashed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center buildings, the side of the Pentagon, and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people, the five men believed to be responsible have yet to face a trial.
The United States government alleges that the plotters carried out a criminal conspiracy in planning and executing the 9/11 plot, listing the names of all 2,977 victims killed on Sept. 11, 2001, in the 90-page 2011 charging sheet. The five, who were arraigned in 2012, were also charged with attacking civilians, hijacking, terrorism, violations of the rules of war, and more.
Mohammed, dubbed “KSM” and described as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” in the 9/11 Commission Report, was a close ally of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and will be on trial alongside Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Ammar al Baluchi, and Mustafa al Hawsawi.
Now 55, he looks much different than he did in the famous post-capture scowling picture of him in 2003 when he was overweight, mustached, and disheveled in a stretched T-shirt partially covering his hairy back. Now, he shows up in court in traditional Pakistani clothing with a white tunic and turban, as well as a dyed-red beard and, sometimes, a camouflage vest.
The era-shaping events of Sept. 11 brought more than 160 people — victims' families, the prosecution, five defense teams, the judge and his staff, military members, more than a dozen journalists, and roughly a dozen nongovernmental observers — to Cuba on charter plane that took off from Andrews Air Force Base outside D.C. on Saturday morning. Mohammed's defense team is led by Gary Sowards, who represented the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whose domestic bombing campaign killed three people.
After multiple scuttled military commissions, battles over classified information, and accusations of torture, the death penalty trial for the alleged brains behind 9/11, along with additional alleged plotters and other al Qaeda members, has been set for this time next year at the U.S. naval base. Brig. Gen. Mark Martins of the U.S. Army, a 60-year-old West Point graduate, has been the lead prosecutor on the 9/11 case for nearly a decade.
The U.S. tried to have Mohammed turned over by Qatar in 1996, but the gulf state allowed Mohammed to escape to Afghanistan, where he planned the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed, who was likely born in Pakistan in 1964 or 1965, was captured there in 2003 and faced interrogations at secret CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan and Poland before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, where he faced further questioning by the FBI. The CIA waterboarded Mohammed 183 times.
A judge must rule on whether confessions made to the FBI will be admissible, with defense teams seeking to suppress it. James Mitchell, an Air Force psychologist who helped design the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program and personally waterboarded Mohammed, is due to be grilled by the defense this week. Bruce Jessen, who also helped design the interrogation program, is expected to testify as well.
The case has been delayed many times, following unfavorable Supreme Court decisions under President George W. Bush and an abandoned effort by President Barack Obama to try the men in a New York City federal court. The military commissions, authorized by a 2009 law, are a hybrid between a military tribunal and a civilian court.
Air Force Col. Shane Cohen, who is presiding, announced last summer that the trial would begin Jan. 11, 2021. The military panel jury selection is scheduled to begin eight months before the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Mohammed, who joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager while living in Kuwait and attended several colleges in North Carolina in the 1980s, confessed to planning the 9/11 attacks in 2007.
“I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z,” Mohammed said in a statement to a Guantanamo Bay tribunal. “I was the operational director for Sheikh Osama bin Laden for the organizing, planning, follow-up, and execution of the 9/11 operation.”
Mohammed claimed to feel “sorry” for what he’d done, saying, “I’m not happy that 3,000 been killed in America,” and, “I don’t like to kill children and the kids.”
When the judge in a 2008 hearing informed him he could be sentenced to death for his crimes, Mohammed welcomed “martyrdom” and told the judge, “In Allah I trust.” He said: ”This is what I wish. I’ve been looking to be martyred for a long time.”
He has since backed away from this.
Mohammed also confessed to planning assassination plots against presidents and a pope and is suspected of participating in other terror attacks, including the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 that killed six people, Richard Reid’s “shoe bomber” 2001 attempt to blow up an airliner, and the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing in Indonesia that killed 202 people.
He also admitted to killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” Mohammed said in 2007. Mohammed hasn’t been charged for Pearl’s murder, though that could happen after the 9/11 case finishes.
All five defendants are due to appear in court on Tuesday. If the trial ends with convictions, it will likely be years before any sentence is carried out. A military commissions appeals court would review the verdict. Then, the defendants have the right to appeal their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
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