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.”
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