When Al Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in 2003, intelligence officials assured us that he was a very big fish, indeed. As operations chief for the terrorist group, KSM (as he was known) had a hand in most of Al Qaida's activities, and detailed knowledge of its planning and preparations for future attacks.
With release of Mohammed's "confession" on Wednesday, we're getting a more complete picture of his role within the terror organization, and the scope of his efforts to bring death and destruction to the west. In a document submitted to a military hearing at the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base in Cuba, Mohammed linked himself--and Al Qaida--to a string of terrorist attacks dating back to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. KSM freely admitted to being the architect of 9-11 ("I was responsible from A to Z"); he also claimed responsibility for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the deadly Bali nightclub bombing; attacks against an Israeli-owned resort and jetliner in Kenya, and even the failed "shoe bomb" plot of terrorist Richard Reid.
In all, KSM claims to have played a role in planning or supporting 31 terrorist attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people. His "confession" paints a chilling picture of a terrorist group with grandiose plans that--increasingly--went unfulfilled after 9-11. Mohammed's list of Al Qaida plots includes many that were apparently foiled by counter-terrorism efforts, or they simply never progressed beyond the planning stage. Among those operations was a plan to kill former U.S. presidents that was never publicly disclosed prior to Mohammed's confession.
If his claims are accurate, KSM was a very busy man, hell-bent on launching as many terror attacks as possible, and eliminating scores of "infidels" in the process. And, certainly, there is evidence to support those contentions. But Mohammed's confession also bears the sign of a man who's been in jail for quite a while and understands that his future is solely in the hands of his captors. Avoiding the death penalty--or simply getting better treatment while in captivity--means that KSM has ample reasons to prove his "value" to U.S. investigators. Put another way, Mohammed wouldn't be the first jail house canary to sing about his importance within a terrorist organization, and exaggerate his role in some operations.
Make no mistake: I have no doubt that KSM was the chief operational planner of 9-11, and for that alone, he deserves to die. And, there's ample reason to believe that Mohammed was involved in the abduction and brutal slaying of Daniel Pearl. Beyond that, we'll have to see what amplifying evidence can be produced at Mohammed's eventual military tribunal, and how many claims can be verified through other law enforcement and intelligence sources.
If there's any reason to believe KSM's assertions, it lies in Al Qaida's activities after his capture. With Mohammed as operations chief, planning for future attacks was much more centralized and ambitious. Following his arrest, that process became much more de-centralized, with local Al Qaida affiliates assuming a greater role in identifying targets and launching subsequent strikes--the Madrid and London transit bombings are cases in point.
But KSM's arrest was not the only reason for the shift in Al Qaida operations. The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan destroyed the group's operational base, scattered top leadership, and put the organization squarely on the defensive. Even if Mohammed had remained free a bit longer, he could not have planned (nor conceived) operations with the same impunity he enjoyed before 9-11.
At the time of KSM's arrest, many analysts noted the difficulty that Al Qaida faced in replacing him, and in a sense, he has never been replaced. But the group's subsequent inability to plan and execute spectacular attacks (on the scale of 9-11) is less a reflection of Mohammed's skills, and more a testament to our own success in the War on Terror. KSM's list of "confessed" operations largely corresponds with an era when the U.S. refused to recognize the terrorist threat for what it was--and paid dearly for that mistake. And finally, the terrorist's admission provides a cautionary note, a reminder of what could happen again if we lose sight of that threat, or surrender our willingness to fight.
Jules Crittenden has an excellent dissection of KSM's confession, including the terrorist's own, perverted vision of himself.