Chief 9/11 Architect Critical of Bin Laden

Times Staff Writer

To hear Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed tell it, Osama bin Laden was a meddling boss whose indiscretion and poor judgment threatened to derail the terrorist attacks.

He also saddled Mohammed with at least four would-be hijackers who the ringleader thought were ill-equipped for the job. And he carelessly dropped hints about the imminent attacks, violating Mohammed’s cardinal rule against discussing the suicide hijacking plot.

The repeated conflicts between the two Al Qaeda leaders emerged last week during the penalty phase of the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. Jurors heard new details of the plot from the interrogation summaries of several captured Al Qaeda officials, including an extraordinary account of a series of interrogations of Mohammed.

Mohammed described Al Qaeda in a written statement for his U.S. interrogators as an almost mystically efficient corporation that operates in ways Americans would never understand.

The portly Kuwaiti, who had studied engineering in the U.S. and was captured in Pakistan in 2003, told his interrogators that they could learn a lot from Al Qaeda, the organization.


“You must study these matters to know the huge difference between the Western mentality in administration and the Eastern mentality, specifically at Al Qaeda.”

The hallmark of the system, he said, was unquestioned control: Everyone up the chain of command did as they were told, didn’t ask questions and never bucked authority -- all for the common cause of the enterprise, which in this case was killing as many Americans as possible.

“I know that the materialistic Western mind cannot grasp the idea, and that it is difficult for them to believe,” Mohammed wrote. “But in the end,” he gloated, “the operation was a success.”

Yet Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.

"[Shaikh] Mohammed stated that he was usually compelled to do whatever Bin Laden wanted with respect to operatives for the September 11 operation,” the interrogation summary states. “That said, [Shaikh] Mohammed noted that he disobeyed Bin Laden on several occasions by taking operatives assigned to him by Bin Laden and using them how he best saw fit.”

His independence from Bin Laden had its limits, however, because it was Al Qaeda’s money and operatives that enabled the plot to go forward.

Mohammed succeeded in rejecting three attempts by Bin Laden to accelerate the plot. But he said his boss canceled an entire overseas element of the hijacking scheme that he was orchestrating.

Bin Laden presumably would have his own version of events. But a former FBI agent who closely tracked Al Qaeda said the testy relationship described by Mohammed was consistent with the accounts of other terrorism suspects in custody.

“They couldn’t stand each other,” the former official said. “They both had huge egos.”

The seeds of conflict were planted at the beginning, when Mohammed first presented his idea in 1996 to hijack U.S. planes and fly them into buildings. He specifically suggested “that they send [mujahedin] to study in the flight institutes and use large planes” rather than the smaller military ones that Al Qaeda operatives were trained in flying.

He was turned away, Mohammed said, because Bin Laden told him the plan was unworkable.

Three years later, Bin Laden summoned Mohammed to Afghanistan and gave him the green light. Soon he moved his family from Pakistan to an Al Qaeda base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to proceed with the operation.

By October 2000, Mohammed had risen in the ranks and was in firm control of the Sept. 11 plot, showing an array of management skills.

It was Mohammed who decided to send two hijackers to San Diego after coming across San Diego phone books in a local market in Karachi, Pakistan, and determining that it had numerous flight schools and other important amenities.

Mohammed told the two to visit the zoo and other tourist sites so they would blend in while they were taking flight lessons and otherwise preparing for the suicide hijackings.

He told his interrogators he provided “personalized training” to an estimated 39 Al Qaeda operatives for deployment on missions.

And Mohammed revealed some of his management stratagems to his interrogators.

“Simplicity was the key to success,” was one of them.

For instance, he told the plot’s co-conspirators not to use codes, especially in routine messages or e-mails.

“He asked the operatives to be normal to the maximum extent possible in their dealings, to keep the tone of their letters educational, social or commercial, and to keep the calls short.”

Mohammed also delegated tasks. He entrusted much of the communications and finance details to two underlings so he would not have to be in contact with the hijackers while they were in America. And he gave lead hijacker Mohamed Atta the authority over many operational details.

Mohammed said he was a stickler for security. He insisted on compartmentalizing the details of the plot, to such a degree that even some of Al Qaeda’s top officials did not know them.

“When four people know the details of an operation, it is dangerous; when two people know, it is good; when just one person knows, it is better,” Mohammed said, according to his interrogators.

Had Mohammed not insisted on such security measures, he suggested, Bin Laden might have endangered the whole mission. That’s because Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire with a huge trust fund, apparently had a knack for forcing Mohammed to take operatives who couldn’t follow directions or keep their mouths shut.

In the earliest stages, Bin Laden told Mohammed to use two of his favored young operatives as lead members of the hijacking team.

Mohammed had concerns from the outset about Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, believing the two men would stick out like sore thumbs while living in the United States. Other team members would ultimately be handpicked, he said, for their worldliness, street savvy and other applicable skills.

Alhazmi and Almihdhar had U.S. visas, which helped. But one hardly spoke English and the other spoke none.

“They barely knew how to function in U.S. society,” Mohammed told his interrogators. “The only reason they were involved in the 9/11 plot was because they had visas and because Bin Laden ... wanted the two to go on the operation.”

By mid-2000, Mohammed moved to kick Almihdhar out of the group because he defied his orders and left the United States for Yemen, leaving Alhazmi alone in San Diego.

But Bin Laden interceded and instructed Mohammed to allow Almihdhar to return to the United States and the hijacking team, he said.

Mohammed also resented a purported 20th hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani, imposed on him by Bin Laden, describing him as “too much of an unsophisticated Bedouin to function in a modern society.” Al-Qahtani was turned away by a suspicious customs agent in Orlando, Fla., and never joined the mission.

They had repeated disagreements over Moussaoui, whose run-ins with Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia convinced Mohammed that he was not a “suitable operative,” even with his valuable European credentials, which made him less suspicious to U.S. authorities.

Mohammed recalled Moussaoui to Pakistan and asked Bin Laden and top aide Mohammed Atef for permission to expel him from the organization. At the time, Mohammed says, Moussaoui was to be a participant in a second wave of planned attacks to follow Sept. 11.

“Despite [Shaikh] Mohammed’s suggestion, Atef and Bin Laden insisted that Moussaoui remain in the program and instructed that the program should continue as planned,” the interrogation report said.

Moussaoui was punished by being sent to a school in Kandahar, after which Al Qaeda leaders pronounced him “reformed,” the interrogation summary states.

Mohammed, however, “was not convinced.” He grudgingly complied with his orders and sent Moussaoui to the United States for flight training. But he purposely kept Moussaoui in the dark about plot details, and told him never to mention aircraft in any communications.

Soon after he reached the United States, Moussaoui violated the order, sending Mohammed an e-mail detailing his attempts to get flight training on various aircraft.

An “exasperated” Mohammed ordered aides to break off contact with Moussaoui for fear that his indiscretion would tip off authorities about Al Qaeda’s presence in the U.S.

By then, it was too late. When arrested in mid-August in Minnesota, Moussaoui possessed enough incriminating information to alert authorities to the carefully orchestrated plot, law enforcement officials would later assert.

He also was found with the home address of a top Al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons expert in South Asia, which triggered a manhunt for the operative and raised scrutiny of travelers from Pakistan to Malaysia, a favorite Al Qaeda pipeline.

Meanwhile, to Mohammed’s chagrin, Bin Laden was repeatedly dropping hints about what was soon to come.

In one case, Mohammed said, Bin Laden told visitors to his Afghanistan headquarters to expect a major near-term attack against U.S. interests. In another, he said, the boss asked trainees at the Al Farooq camp near Kandahar “to pray for the success of a major operation involving 20 martyrs.”

Both Mohammed and Atef “were concerned about this lack of discretion and urged Bin Laden not to make additional comments about the plot,” Mohammed told his interrogators.

The interrogation summary also said he had resisted taking a sworn oath of allegiance, or bayat, to Bin Laden for as long as possible, “to ensure that he remained free to plan operations however he chose.”

After Sept. 11, Mohammed finally relented, he said. Even then, he did so grudgingly, after he was told “that the refusal of such a senior and accomplished Al Qaeda leader to swear bayat set a bad example for the group’s rank and file.”