We don’t understand our enemies any better than we did when they first strode out on that great American stage, the federal courtroom, 15 years ago.
That is the upshot of Monday’s latest episode in Mohammed’s March to Martyrdom, a dreadful show that should close in Cuba before ever making it to the Great White Way. Five top al-Qaeda terrorists told a military judge at Guantanamo Bay that they want to skip their commission trial, admit — no, brag about — their guilt, and proceed straight to execution and its promised eternity of Boogie Nights.
Mohammed, of course, is none other than KSM, the black artist formerly known as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. That was before he orchestrated the 9/11 atrocities, vaulting into that small circle of celebrity where the initials are all you need to know. Infamy is the achievement of a lifetime for this Baluchi marauder turned courtroom diva. It’s what he has always craved: to be known . . . and feared.
In the mid-Nineties, he was just an up-and-comer: anteing up a paltry $660 for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, then co-designing the off-off-Broadway run of Bojinka: an ambitious 1994 production designed to slaughter hundreds of Americans by exploding their cross-Pacific flights in midair — a production that collapsed when a preview detonation failed to bring down the plane, though it did manage to kill a Japanese tourist.
KSM was green with envy when those pilots became star turns for other terrorists: his mad-scientist nephew, Ramzi Yousef, and Omar Abdel Rahman, the capo di tutti jihadi known in America’s living rooms as “the Blind Sheikh.”
Back in those days, KSM couldn’t get himself arrested. Or at least the FBI couldn’t get him arrested. That was thanks to Qatar, another of our ambivalent Arab “allies” in the war on terror. The emirate is an authoritarian sharia-state and jihadist financial hub — though you may know it better as the home of al-Jezeera, the Muslim world’s virulently anti-American media giant to which KSM once served as al-Qaeda’s official liaison.
A U.S.-educated engineer, KSM had a government job in Qatar’s ministry of electricity and water when he was tipped off in 1996 that the Americans were closing in. In the nick of time, he fled to Afghanistan. That’s where Osama bin Laden, having recently worn out his welcome in Sudan, was just setting up shop.
The rest, as they say, is history. Years later, while confirming his status as an enemy combatant, KSM recounted how he’d become al-Qaeda’s “military operational commander” for all foreign operations, running the 9/11 attacks “from A to Z.”
And that was just the warm-up. Mohammed took charge of the cell that managed production of biological weapons and radiological “dirty bombs.” He planned an unconsummated “second-wave” of suicide-hijacking attacks on the Israeli city of Elat, iconic sites in Great Britain, and the U.S. — where the Empire State Building and other skyscrapers in Chicago, San Francisco and the state of Washington were targeted. KSM directed the bombing of a hotel frequented by Israelis in Mombassa, Kenya — and, for good measure, shot a surface-to-air missile near Mombassa’s airport, barely missing a departing El-Al flight. He plotted bomb strikes against America’s domestic financial centers; American naval ships and oil tankers in Singapore and the Straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar; and American embassies in Japan, Australia, and Indonesia. The list (which you can find at pages 17-18 of the combatant hearing transcript, here) goes on and on.
KSM is going to be put to death. He knows it and we know it. The same is true of his four underlings. The question is not if but when.
These legal proceedings, then, are simply theater. For the Left, that means projecting shopworn themes under the guise of thoughtfully pondering the purpose of the jihadists’ procedural maneuvering. Is KSM scheming to challenge our new president’s redoubling of Islamic outreach? Is he daring Obama to kick off the promised era of good feeling by executing Muslims, even as the new administration backpedals from campaign commitments to shut down Gitmo and withdraw from Iraq forthwith? Or is he, as the ACLU speculated for the New York Times, trying to draw attention to the asserted folly of abandoning the 1990’s model of civilian terrorist trials in favor of “a failed commission process”?
Yes, it’s the silly season.
What we don’t yet seem to grasp, even after all that’s gone on these last two decades, is that our politics and our law are of interest only to us. They matter nothing to jihadists. It’s a fatuous exercise in self-absorption to suppose otherwise — and a foolish one since it demonstrates for all to see that we still don’t get it. The delusion that we can change our enemies by changing ourselves is what makes the useful idiots useful.
KSM doesn’t see Bush or Obama. He sees an American president. He sees a symbol — the embodiment of a people and culture that are his mortal enemy. Back in 1994, when the Bojinka escapade was flushed out in the Philippines, investigators found that the jihadists were also planning an assassination of President Clinton. Thirteen years later, KSM explained to a military judge that he had mapped out “the assassination of several former American presidents, including President Carter.”
Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, cowboy or solon — these distinctions matter to us. KSM couldn’t care less.
In 1999, as was the fashion throughout the Nineties, we gave the embassy bombers due process’s version of The Full Monty: a civilian trial in the Big Apple, with multiple taxpayer-funded attorneys and investigators at their beck and call. We thought we were teaching the enemy and the world about America’s high regard for them and for the rule of law.
The Islamic world was unimpressed — much of it mocking the proceedings as a show trial. As for al-Qaeda, it did what al-Qaeda does: it studied our solicitous procedures with an eye toward the usual barbarity. Mamdouh Salim, a KSM confederate in al-Qaeda’s top echelon, determined that the constitutional rights to counsel and to prepare a defense provided a splendid opportunity to kidnap one’s American lawyers and use them as human shields in an attempted jail-break. Salim was stopped, but not before nearly killing the prison guard he stabbed in the eye while making his move.
For radical Islam, it’s not about us; it’s about them. KSM isn’t about us. He’s about KSM. There is no system we can devise, nothing we can do or not do, no one we can elect or anoint, that will alter how we are perceived by the millions who share the jihadist worldview, if not jihadist methods.
So why are KSM and his four fellow detainees trying to end-run their trial and rush to martyrdom? I daresay the answer should be, “Who cares?”
Live jihadists attain a lofty status in our custody, their notoriety enhancing their ability to inspire more terror. The Blind Sheikh issued the fatwa for 9/11 from his American jail cell; Sayyid Nosair, the murderer of JDL-founder Meir Kahane, exhorted the 1993 World Trade Center bombers from Attica prison; those bombers, in turn, egged on Spanish terrorists by sending messages through the penitentiary mail system. KSM and his associates will be no different. If they are ready to die, we ought to accommodate them — for once, our interests are in sync.
If I thought it was worth wasting much attention on his latest ploy, I’d point out that since being captured in 2003, KSM has been what he hates maybe even more than he hates Americans: irrelevant. Now that he finally has his soapbox, he also has his reputation to consider. Since 9/11, he’s best known for breaking under interrogation and thus helping the United States thwart more mayhem than he managed to pull off.
What he wants now is to go out in a blaze of bravado. A full-blown trial — whether military or civilian — might not be the best way to do that. It would broadcast his failures as much as his triumphs. As the outcome is not in doubt, he’d just as soon focus on a heroic, defiant, martyr’s death, with as much spotlight as possible.
We should take his guilty plea, then move swiftly to the capital phase and the inevitable death sentence. That is our law. But once that’s done, KSM ought to be consigned back to obscurity, at least for a while. He’s in a rush, but we don’t need to be. At a time of our choosing, when it will get minimum coverage, KSM and his confederates should be executed without fanfare. A curt announcement should be made, informing the public that the deed has been done.
Most of the world would yawn. That would be justice.
– National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy chairs FDD’s Center for Law & Counterterrorism and is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter Books 2008).