Maybe We Shouldn't Try KSM

As the Obama administration swings back toward the idea of trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a military tribunal, Richard Miniter asks what’s to be gained from going to court at all.

So far the controversy over the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has been over where it will be held, instead of whether it should be held at all.

No one doubts KSM's guilt. By his own admission, he is the world's most lethal terrorist. When he became an operational commander of al Qaeda in 1996, the terror network quickly went from killing dozens to hundreds and then thousands of people. The targets became bigger (embassies, battleships, landmarks). After his capture in 2003, the death toll from al Qaeda terror fell to its earlier level. The 7/7 attacks in London, for example, claimed fewer than 60 lives. Al Qaeda has lost his boldness.

"The one public benefit of a civilian trial is that it would force the public to address some hard questions. Was KSM radicalized in the U.S. in the 1980s?"

"The one public benefit of a civilian trial is that it would force the public to address some hard questions. Was KSM radicalized in the U.S. in the 1980s?"

Inspired by the film, Independence Day—in which flying saucers destroy the White House, the Capitol, and various New York and Los Angeles landmarks—KSM developed the idea for the "planes operation"(the September 11 attacks). He trained the 9/11 hijackers and planned nearly every aspect of the atrocity. He planned and supervised the Bali bombing, which killed nearly 200, and talked Richard Reid into putting a bomb in his shoe. He was behind the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center which killed six and left a crater 40 feet wide and four stories deep. He has more failed plots than a James Bond villain: two assassination attempts on Pope John Paul II, a plot to murder President Clinton during a 1994 visit to the Philippines, an attempt to bomb Big Ben in London, and plans to collapse the Panama Canal and to simultaneously explode 10 U.S. airliners over the Pacific.

Any trial would give KSM a pulpit to the attack the U.S. government. He is fluent in English, charismatic, and, his college friends say, he knows how to perform for an audience. He enjoyed staging weekly skits after Friday prayers near their North Carolina campus. Fellow detainees say he is a gifted public speaker and a scene stealer. Nor is he a conventional Islamic radical. While building bombs in the Philippines, he often held meetings of his terror cell in Manila strip clubs (even once joining a stripper at the brass pole to show her how to wiggle provocatively). To woo a Filipina dentist, he phoned her and asked her to look out of her clinic window. There she spotted KSM in a rented helicopter holding up a banner that said "I love you." In any trial, he would be hard to pigeonhole and harder to control.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials say that a Manhattan-based trial would cost $200 million per year and pose an unacceptable risk to the public. While these arguments are popular (just ask the 9/11 families), they are pointless. A federal trial will be costly no matter where it is held. As for safety, critics of the New York trial should learn from terrorist trials held in India, Pakistan and elsewhere—where al Qaeda and other terrorist groups attacked not the courthouses, but virtually anything connected to the country holding the trial. U.S. embassies and the offices of American companies abroad would be the most likely targets, but the attacks could strike the homeland, too.

Al Qaeda could learn from Omar Ahmed Saeed Sheikh. The British-born radical was arrested in India in 1994 and convicted of kidnapping three British subjects and an American citizen. His terrorist comrades hijacked an Indian Airlines plane in 1999, flew it to Pakistan, and threatened to kill 155 passengers. To win the release of the hostages, the Indian government had to free Omar Sheikh and several other convicted terrorists linked to the Taliban. (Omar Sheikh later joined KSM in killing Daniel Pearl). The terror group did not attack the courthouse or the prison that held Sheikh. They realized that any target that would put pressure on the government that tried and convicted him would suffice. So the neighborhood surrounding the New York courthouse would not necessarily be the tartget. A hijacking in Kuala Lumpur or a bombing in Minnesota would be just as likely. If militants seized a large public school in the Midwest, as they did in Beslan, Russia, the hostage crisis would almost certainly force KSM's release. A trial anywhere would endanger Americans everywhere.

What about moving the trial to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the Obama administration is considering in its talks with Senator Lindsey Graham? While that might shift the costs from the New York City Police Department to the U.S. military, it would do nothing to reduce the risk a trial would pose to U.S. citizens at home and abroad.

Career federal prosecutors privately tell me that they would prefer to hold the trial in Alexandria, Virginia, preferably in the same federal courthouse where Zacarias Moussaoui was tried. Security costs would be borne by the feds, and the court officials have extensive post-9/11 experience in trying major al Qaeda figures. (Career Justice Department officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing Attorney General Eric Holder's ongoing discussions with the White House about where and when to hold the KSM trial.) Of course, the security risks are the same no matter where the trial is held.

The one public benefit of a civilian trial, career prosecutors say, is that it would force the public to address some hard questions. Was KSM radicalized in the U.S. in the 1980s? And was he further radicalized in U.S. custody in Gitmo? These are questions that might prove uncomfortable for the Obama Administration.

What do we know of KSM, the man? Like so many dreams, his took flight in America. He enrolled in Chowan College in 1983, a tiny two-year Baptist institution in the cotton and tobacco fields of Murfreesboro, North Carolina, mainly because it did not require passing an English language proficiency exam. KSM had to attend mandatory classes on Christianity and sing hymns at college events -- hardly a pleasure for an imam's son. He tended to avoid non-Arab students, spending his time studying and praying.

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After only a semester, KSM transferred to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black school whose most famous graduate is Jesse Jackson. There he joined a group of Arab students known on campus as "the Mullahs." Sammy Zatawi, KSM's then-lab partner, told NPR that KSM and his friends so strictly interpreted Islam that they would not listen to music or take photographs of living things. They worshipped in a makeshift mosque. Isolated by language and culture, KSM and his fellow Muslim students sometimes suffered from what they regarded as bigoted pranks. Prior to praying, foreign students would line up their shoes in a dorm corridor. Other students would throw them in a nearby lake.

KSM's view of America certainly did not improve when he was arrested by Greensboro police for driving with an expired license. He was jailed and forced to wear an orange and red jumpsuit. A recently declassified CIA report, dated July 13, 2004, concluded: "KSM's limited and negative experiences in the United States... almost certainly helped propel him on his path to become a terrorist." KSM later told CIA officials that "while attending North Carolina A&T State University, he focused on his studies and associated primarily with fellow Islamist students from the Middle East. He stated that his contacts with Americans, while minimal, confirmed his view that the United States was a debauched and racist country."

American universities seem to radicalize more middle-class Arabs than did their upbringing in the Middle East. Asked about the campus environment that shaped KSM, one Kuwaiti political scientist told the Los Angeles Times: "Pre-Sept. 11, I knew many mothers here who worried about their children going to America and coming back very radical in their thinking as Islamists."

Was KSM radicalized here? What responsibility do American educators have for allowing foreign students to suffer a kind of self-imposed cultural apartheid that enables radical voices to dominate?

KSM's other prolonged exposure to Americans was in the custody of the CIA, in a secret prison some 100 kilometers outside Warsaw, and in the hands of the U.S. military in Guantanamo. His waterboarding and "enhanced" interrogation gave him invaluable street cred among his fellow inmates.

Two photographs tell the tale of KSM's continuing transformation. The first is the best known. Taken shortly after his capture by Pakistani security forces in 2003, we see him staring stunned at the camera, his open-neck shirt revealing a carpet of chest hair. Significantly, he has no beard, as most Islamists do, and he is wearing Western clothes.

On September 9, 2009, another photo of KSM was made public. Snapped by the International Committee of the Red Cross, KSM has a long beard, flowing white robes, a traditional headscarf, and is clutching prayer beads. Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett said the photograph was taken with the permission of Gitmo camp guards and sent to KSM's family. They, in turn, apparently sent it to his comrades in arms. It soon became a fixture on jihadi websites. It was quite a propaganda coup. KSM appears as a pious sheikh who has left behind the strip clubs and cocktail lounges of his terrorist days.

In his appearance before the military tribunals in Gitmo, he taunted prosecutors and repeatedly demanded his execution. The primary danger of a public trial of KSM is that it will set us on an irreversible course that will lead to his death—giving him the martyrdom he so desperately craves. And martyrs inspire followers.

The safest course is not to give KSM a trial at all, leaving him in an anonymous cell where he is made to slowly betray his comrades.

Richard Miniter has written two New York Times bestsellers on terrorism, Losing bin Laden and Shadow War, and is writing a biography of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He is a former editorial-page writer and columnist for The Wall Street Journal Europe and editorial page editor of the Washington Times.