How True Are the Confessions of a Terror Mastermind?

Last Wednesday night, I was at the Village Synagogue in Manhattan showing HBO's film The Journalist and Jihadi about the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. The film, which I worked on as a contributing producer/consultant, concludes by linking al Qaeda's #3 operative, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to his shocking videotaped slaughter by beheading of Pearl.

The next day, the U.S. government released portions of the transcript of an interview with "enemy combatant" Mohammed in which he admitted for the first time killing Pearl.

In a grisly disclosure, a man who is now being described as "one of history's most infamous terrorists" claimed, according to Agence France Press, "to have beheaded U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl ... with my blessed right hand," according to a transcript released by the Pentagon." This act alone enables him to supersede the infamy of Carlos "the Jackal."

Interestingly, he said, Pearl's murder was not an Al Qaeda operation, a distinction that may be lost on American readers who were mesmerized by his frightening admissions.

In overseas media, his Pearl connection is being associated with the Islamacist campaign in Kashmir, not Pakistan or Afghanistan. A British-born citizen, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is profiled in the film, was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for Pearl's murder in June 2002, but has appealed the verdict.

What do we make of this public disclosure of Mohammed's "confession?" It comes at a time when a growing scandal in the Justice Department and setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan has the Bush Administration reeling. The claims that this larger-than-life, almost comic book "superterrorist" has made certainly adds weight to the War on Terror and Bush's campaign to hunt down and kill those responsible for 9/11.

Getting the "mastermind" was a big "get" when it happened, and his revelations certainly have positioned him to joining world's worst list. (It was the Pakistanis who got him, not the super sleuths of the CIA.) The Guardian reported that his long list of terror operations -- most of which failed -- were greeted "with shock and skepticism in almost equal measure." The NY Times downplayed their concerns near the end of their story on page A23 saying matter-of-factly, "It is not clear how many of Mr. Mohammed's expansive claims were legitimate." Note the word "expansive."

An American editor wrote to me, "I am deeply troubled by the reports of Mohammed's confession. It strikes me that it is a tidy resolution to a much larger problem. How convenient that we have all the questions answered in one somewhat disheveled package. Considering that the confession was obtained through torture, and the number of studies that have shown that information obtained in that matter is unreliable (although politically expedient), what have we really learned? Is it overly cynical to think that this administration so desperately needs a win that this is being trotted out?

And what of the nefarious Osama Bin Laden? Does this mean that he wasn't involved, if Mohammed was the "mastermind" and orchestrated everything from "A to Z." (By the way, interesting use of the American vernacular -- I wonder who the translator is?)."

Mark Denbeaux, a Seton Hall University law professor who represented two Tunisians held at Guantánamo Bay, said "The government has finally brought someone into Gitmo who apparently admits to being someone who could be called an enemy combatant. "None of the others rise to this level. The government has now got one." He says he may be the only one!

But what have they got? Reports the Guardian, "critics of both the interrogation methods used at the camp and the exclusion of independent observers from the hearings today dismissed the confessions." (Note: the Press was also excluded which is suspicious as well).

"Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, questioned the legality of both the hearing and the confession, and said the suspect's claims could be tainted by torture.

"We won't know that unless there is an independent hearing," Mr. Roth said. "We need to know if this purported confession would be enough to convict him at a fair trial or would it have to be suppressed as the fruit of torture?"

Mohammed has been a secretive mystery man, and at the same time, a publicity hound which raises some issues about who this terrible terrorist really is.

According to a 2003 Guardian report, "He was reported to have been killed in Karachi in a bloody shootout with Pakistani security forces on September 11, 2002 There is even doubt over his nationality. Some say he is Pakistani, others that he is a Kuwaiti. Certainly, though, he does appear to be of Pakistani origin, probably Baloch, and raised in Kuwait. He is thought to have been in Pakistan for about two-and-a-half years, well before September 11, 2001.

How did they find him? Great police work? Bombing "them back to the stone age?" Nope. They saw him on TV.

"Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials were alerted to his presence in the country when he gave an interview to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television station shortly before the first anniversary of September 11. On the strength of intercepted communications through ordinary mobile phones as well as satellite telephones, the net closed on Khalid."

Wait, there's more about this larger-than-life, part-killer and amateur historian who compares himself to George Washington for American consumption!

Writes Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaida: Global Network of Terror

"Although Mohammed insists that he is a believer, he is not a strict Muslim, and while the September hijackers lived in cheap lodgings, he stayed in plush hotels. In contrast to the spartan lifestyle of Osama bin Laden and his followers, he was flamboyant, spent lavishly, and is known to joke with colleagues to ease the pressure on him and on them.

In the Philippines. he was a frequent visitor to Manila's red light district, including its karaoke bars and mirrored go-go clubs, where he introduced himself to women as a wealthy businessman from Qatar. Mohammed's womanizing included phoning a dentist and telling her: "Look out of the window and look up."

What she saw was Mohammed and his nephew and protege Ramzi Ahmed Yousef waving from a helicopter hovering above her clinic and displaying a banner saying "I love you."

Is this for real or a segment on "24?" Is there a private joke here we are not getting? (Bear in mind that Ramzi and KSM's "Bojinka" plans preceded 9/11 and were downplayed by the intelligence geniuses here.")

He seems ostentatious and self-promotional enough to rate a movie of his own, and no doubt several are now in development. Hollywood can't pass up a character like him, an authentic "bad guy" who is said to "think big," and conceptualize grand designs and blueprints. Who knows, he may get his own show. Can you imagine his "exclusive" interview with Diane Sawyer or Bill O'Reilly?

KSM knew how to play his role as mastermind extraordinaire, says a terror expert: "A master of disguise, he often tinted his hair, using wigs, sporting beards and moustache, and wearing glasses. He wore Asian or western clothes, spoke very good English and moved about frequently." If this description of his English is accurate, what do we make of the convoluted language in his alleged "confession?"

If there isn't a screenwriter behind this now, there might as well be. It's been five years since 9/11, four from the start of the Iraq war. We are being told that Al Qaeda has been totally rebuilt, that Afghanistan is on a new boil, and that the surge is not surging.

So what can we believe? Do we trust the Pentagon and its intelligence through water-boarding program? Will KSM's well-publicized "confession" really dampen all the 9/11 rumors? Will it win back the Administration's credibility? Will it really damage Al Qaeda's capacity to cause more damage with its reported cells in 98 countries? Unfortunately, it won't bring Danny Pearl back.

Is this show just more "show" and tell? How many Hail Mary's will his confession result in? Will his eventual execution make our world any safer?

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