Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti national who is thought to be the highest-ranking Al Qaeda operative in U.S. custody, told a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last weekend that he was responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a transcript of the hearing.
In a written statement read to a three-officer panel, Mohammed claimed he was Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s “operational leader” for the “9/11 operation,” responsible for the “organizing, planning, follow-up and execution” of the plot.
“I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z,” Mohammed said, according to the transcript, which was released by the Pentagon on Wednesday night.
Mohammed was present at the hourlong, closed-door hearing Saturday, and he interjected frequently in slightly broken English. His admission was read to the tribunal by an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was serving as Mohammed’s representative.
Mohammed also gave a lengthy, apparently spontaneous speech in which he likened Al Qaeda operatives to American revolutionaries, described a war against a dominating U.S. presence and even expressed a measure of remorse.
“I’m not happy that 3,000 been killed in America,” he said, according to the transcript. “I feel sorry, even. I don’t like to kill children and the kids. Never Islam are give me green light to kill people. Killing, as in the Christianity, Jews and Islam, are prohibited.”
In his 31-point statement, Mohammed claimed responsibility for a wide range of terrorist plots, including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; the 2002 bombings of nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia; and the so-called shoe-bomber plot to down U.S. airliners traveling across the Atlantic. He said he took part in plans to kill former Presidents Carter and Clinton, as well as the late Pope John Paul II.
Mohammed has made similar claims in the past about his involvement in terrorist attacks. The Sept. 11 commission report, published three years ago, cited several interrogation reports compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies in which Mohammed described his role in the attacks in detail.
In addition, the trial of alleged Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui last year included statements by Mohammed that were read to jurors, in which he described his role in several terrorist plots.
But Saturday’s hearing was the first time Mohammed had faced a U.S. legal proceeding since he was captured in Pakistan in March 2003. And it was the first time he was allowed to freely discuss U.S. allegations without interrogators present. He used the opportunity to present charges that he had been tortured by his U.S. captors, and he attempted to portray himself as a soldier fighting a war of independence.
“What I wrote here is not I’m making myself hero when I said I was responsible for this or that,” Mohammed said, addressing the U.S. Navy captain who presided over the tribunal. “You are military man. You know very well there are language for any war.”
None of the military officers who participated were named, a common practice in the tribunals that is intended to prevent possible retribution.
Mohammed was held by the CIA in a secret U.S. detention facility for more than three years. He was moved into military custody at Guantanamo Bay in September after the Supreme Court ruled that all Al Qaeda detainees were covered by the Geneva Convention, which prohibits inhumane treatment.
Saturday’s hearing, formally called a combatant status review tribunal, was intended to determine whether Mohammed will officially be classified as an “enemy combatant” and held at Guantanamo Bay.
Although Mohammed’s tribunal is largely a formality, under military detention rules adopted after a series of Supreme Court rulings, all Guantanamo Bay detainees must be accorded such a hearing. A ruling is likely to take several weeks.
The government’s case against him is based at least in part on a computer hard drive that the Pentagon said was seized when Mohammed was captured and that contained code names, flight numbers and photos of the Sept. 11 hijackers. But the case also may include classified evidence that was not made public or provided to Mohammed.
In addition to his claims of being involved in dozens of successful and foiled terrorist plots -- including the so-called second wave of planned attacks on U.S. buildings, the Library Tower in Los Angeles among them -- Mohammed asked that other detainees at Guantanamo Bay be treated humanely, arguing that many of them were not Al Qaeda or Taliban operatives.
Mohammed appears to have exaggerated his role in some of the plots. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, for instance, was masterminded by Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who was convicted of coordinating the attack by a U.S. court in 1996.
But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said most of the nearly three dozen attacks listed -- many of which were foiled -- appeared to have been masterminded or guided by Mohammed.
“It’s almost every single Al Qaeda plot up until he was apprehended,” Hoffman said. “This just shows that Bin Laden and [Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman] Zawahiri can make threats, but Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the go-to guy.”
Mohammed’s central role in so many Al Qaeda plots makes his capture an important milestone, but his statement also provides clues about terrorist groups that may still be at large.
In a section that was partially redacted by the Pentagon, Mohammed discussed terrorist plots that occurred outside the Al Qaeda network, including the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Mohammed credited the slaying to a group of Pakistani militants.
The “Pakistani mujahadeen group” Mohammed mentioned appeared to refer to militants who got their start fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir but have since gained more global and regional ambitions, Hoffman said.
Mohammed spent most of his speech, which stretched over nearly four pages in the single-spaced transcript, attempting to explain his view that Al Qaeda attacks were a series of battles in a war for liberation. He said that U.S. labels such as “terrorists” and “enemy combatants” were deceptive, and that Al Qaeda operatives were merely soldiers. At one point, he compared Bin Laden to George Washington.
“If now we were living in the Revolutionary War and George Washington, he being arrested through Britain, for sure they would consider him enemy combatant,” he said. “But American, they consider him as hero.”
As he expressed regret for the children killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, he said they were the victims of a war and likened them to Iraqi civilians killed during the U.S. invasion.
“Because war, for sure, there will be victims,” Mohammed said.
Hoffman said Mohammed’s long speech was “striking for how logical and rational” it was, but he said it was not uncommon for terrorist leaders to describe themselves as reluctant warriors, or to compare themselves favorably to American revolutionary leaders.
“It’s completely typical of all terrorists throughout history,” Hoffman said.
Mohammed appeared calm and composed, based on the transcript, and made an effort to understand the tribunal process and to cooperate with the panel. At one point, an officer asked him if he had any questions about the tribunal process.
“OK by me,” Mohammed answered.
Mohammed is one of 14 so-called high-value detainees who were moved to Guantanamo Bay, and one of the first three to face a military tribunal.
The Pentagon also released transcripts of the two other hearings, including that of accused Sept. 11 conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh, who was captured in Pakistan months before Mohammed. But neither of the other two agreed to attend their hearings, and the transcripts are largely devoid of much in the way of information beyond procedural matters.
According to Binalshibh’s hearing transcript, his personal representative tried four times in February and March to read him the unclassified version of evidence that was being used to detain him, but in all four instances he refused to leave his cell.
The other detainee, Abu Faraj Libbi, another alleged Al Qaeda leader and an associate of Mohammed’s, submitted a statement in which he said he was refusing to participate because he was not allowed to have a lawyer and was being denied a formal court hearing.
In Mohammed’s hearing, the Al Qaeda operative gave no details about his claims that he was tortured by U.S. agents.
The charges of mistreatment were raised by the Navy captain overseeing the proceeding. The captain said the charges were in written statements that Mohammed gave the tribunal and would be part of the hearing record.
Mohammed accused the U.S. of arresting and abusing his children. He also charged U.S. officials of intentionally targeting and killing the children of Bin Laden and Zawahiri.
In making the accusation, Mohammed claimed it was the U.S. that did not respect human rights, arguing that Al Qaeda always targeted legitimate facilities related to U.S. economic and military might.
“When we target in USA, we chose them military target, economical and political,” he said. “Now American, they know [Bin Laden], he is in this house. They don’t care about his kids ... they will just bombard it. They will kill all of them, and they did it.”
Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
‘I was responsible’
The following is an excerpt from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s statement before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay:
I was emir (i.e., commander) of Beit Al Shuhada (i.e., the Martyrs’ House) in the state of Kandahar, Afghanistan, which housed the 9/11 hijackers. There I was responsible for their training and readiness for the execution of the 9/11 operation. Also, I hereby admit and affirm without duress that I was a responsible participant, principal planner, trainer, financier (via the Military Council Treasury), executor and/or a personal participant in the following:
1. I was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center operation.
2. I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z.
4. I was responsible for the shoe-bomber operation to down two American airplanes.
5. I was responsible for the Filka Island operation in Kuwait that killed two American soldiers.
Source: Defense Department
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Other plots for which Mohammed claimed responsibility
BALI ATTACK: In 2002, suicide bombers struck nightclubs in a tourist district on the Indonesian island, killing 202 people.
SHOE BOMB: In late 2001, Al Qaeda-trained operative Richard Reid tried to bring down a U.S.-bound flight.
TARGETING L.A.: The Library Tower (now the U.S. Bank building) was to be hit in a second wave of attacks on the U.S.