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August 15, 2008 6:03 pm
Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was happy to die. But on June 5 – the day the self-confessed mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the US resurfaced after five years in the CIA’s shadowy network of secret prisons, and then behind the concertina wire at Guantánamo Bay – he was unhappy with his nose. Scrutinising the efforts of the courtroom artist assigned to relay the first glimpse of him to the world outside, Mohammed, a committed enemy of America who had wanted “to be a martyr for a long time”, balked. His nose, he said, was wrong. The artist should draw it thinner. Maybe she should take a look at his FBI mug shot for guidance.
For a man facing his accusers at a US military commission to answer charges that carried the death penalty, it was a curious concern. But on a day rich in the surreal and incongruous, the nose had to be right. Besides, Mohammed’s determination to direct his own image-making had a certain resonance. Why wouldn’t this charismatic man – better known to his comrades in jihad as Mukhtar (“The Brain”) for his pioneering terrorist exploits – want to redress the impression the last photograph of him had conveyed to the world?
Because that picture, which had captured Mohammed following his arrest on March 1 2003, in the northern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, hardly befitted a master-terrorist. The operations chief of al-Qaeda, responsible “from A to Z” for the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people, was revealed that day as a flabby, dishevelled figure in a white undershirt, his hair still sleep-tousled as his captors led him away. George Tenet, the former CIA director, later admitted leaking the photograph to counter portrayals of Mohammed as the James Bond of al-Qaeda: “It sent a message more eloquently than a thousand words ever could that the life of a terrorist on the run is anything but glamorous.”
. . .
On the morning of June 5, the 60 American and foreign journalists flown to Guantánamo to witness the first appearance before a military commission of any of the alleged 9/11 plotters woke early. Tent City, which the US military erected to house the media, was made up of rows of tents, toilets and shower rooms. The reporters and observers emerged from their dark, six-berth tents into a typically blazing Cuban summer’s day, the Caribbean sun glaring off the white gravel of the camp and blinding anyone who had forgotten to bring sunglasses. After making their way to the media centre – two small rooms in a disused aircraft hangar with a video feed connecting it to the courtroom – the visitors were led by a handful of military escorts to the newly built courthouse several hundred metres away. As we approached, it looked just like any other bland prefab. Still, we were not allowed to photograph the building where the US government wanted justice done – and witnessed.
This was a big day for both the prisoners and the Bush administration. Mohammed and his four co-defendants were to be arraigned: they would hear the charges against them, be informed of their rights and have the chance to enter a plea. The Pentagon hoped the high-profile commission would refute criticism that the first US war crimes trials since the second world war were nothing more than kangaroo courts designed to guarantee convictions. This was also the first time a senior al-Qaeda member would be put in the Guantánamo dock over 9/11. While a US military commission delivered a five and a half year sentence on one of Bin Laden’s former drivers, Salim Hamdan, he was so inconsequential that he was not mentioned in the 567-page report produced by the bipartisan, independent 9/11 Commission.
There was a powerful sense of drama in the courtroom. For some, the prospect of seeing Mohammed in the flesh brought them full-circle, back to the morning of September 11 2001. Sahr MuhammedAlly, a senior associate at Human Rights First, who was one of several court observers at Guantánamo, recalled being covered in soot as the Twin Towers collapsed. “I just thought back to that day and how I felt, and I was like ‘wow, you’re going to be facing ... the people who were allegedly involved with this horrible, horrible incident’.”
Around 9am the reporters and observers filed into the soundproofed gallery, which was separated from the main courtroom by a glass partition. We were told that an audio feed would be piped into the gallery, but with a 20-second delay so that the judge could prevent us hearing classified information, either from lawyers or detainees. Since our voices would not carry into the courtroom, there was no need to sit still and stay quiet. Reporters and observers began to jockey for position, standing close to the glass and gawping at the defendants in the court, its smart, custom-made furniture and computer system a far cry from the rest of Guantánamo.
The 18m-by-24m courtroom was divided into two halves. On the left stood a row of six tables for the defence teams; across the central aisle, another three rows of tables for the prosecutors; between the two halves a podium. Colonel Ralph Kohlmann, the military judge, sat on a dais.
Everyone stared into the well of the court, where the five accused were already present, sitting one behind the other on the left-hand ends of the tables, alongside their military and civilian lawyers. Gazing out over the courtroom, I counted about 16 guards, mostly over on the left side of the room. We had been told the night before that they would be unarmed to prevent one of the detainees from getting his hands on a weapon.
And now, here before us at last, were Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11, and his co-accused: Walid Bin’Attash, a Saudi-born Yemeni national charged with training 9/11 hijackers at a camp in Afghanistan; Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, also a Yemeni national, accused of acting as a liaison between the al-Qaeda leadership and the hijackers, as well as with helping the hijackers find flight schools in the US; Ammar al-Baluchi, Mohammed’s nephew, accused of sending money to the hijackers in the US; and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a Saudi national, also said to have helped finance the attacks. Immediately there was confusion. Which of the five men was Mohammed? The reporters turned to one another, asking if anyone recognised him, until one of the soldiers pointed out that he was sitting in the front row. Our gaze zeroed in.
“I knew he wouldn’t look like the guy in the T-shirt, but I didn’t think he would look like the guy in the T-shirt’s grandfather,” said Carol Rosenberg, a Miami Herald reporter who likes to joke that she has spent more time at Guantánamo than anyone except the detainees. “I have been sitting through hundreds of hours of tribunal hearings and military commissions, and this was the first time we actually saw someone accused of a 9/11 crime,” she said.
There was no denying that Mohammed looked much older than his 43 years, as if decades had elapsed since the infamous picture of him taken before he disappeared into the netherworld of the CIA’s so-called “black sites”. Where the earlier picture suggested a startled but solid, paunchy figure, the Mohammed who sat in court seemed to have shrunk into a smaller, thinner frame. He wore a flowing white tunic, a skullcap, and thick black-rimmed glasses that lent him a professorial air. A large greying beard gave him a striking resemblance to al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. “I was somewhat shocked to see he was so old-looking and so small ... he was pint-sized but with that huge beard, it was really strange,” said Edward MacMahon, a civilian lawyer who was representing Bin’Attash.
Even before the legal proceedings got under way, the atmosphere in the courtroom was strange. The five defendants, who had not seen each other since their capture, chatted freely among themselves with only infrequent, mild admonishments from the judge. “There were times when they were being just like frat boys,” recalled Commander Suzanne Lachelier, a Navy lawyer representing Bin al-Shibh. “[Mohammed] was joking with my client saying ‘No wonder I don’t get enough food’, or something, ‘you must be in the cell next to me’, because my client had gained weight.”
However, it would soon become clear that Mohammed commanded respect from his co-defendants, and even Kohlmann seemed to show some deference when addressing him. The judge started by inquiring how well each defendant spoke English. “Not bad,” replied Mohammed. Kohlmann moved on to explain that the accused were entitled to free representation by military lawyers. Without warning, Mohammed got to his feet and began to chant verses from the Koran in Arabic.
“God is all-sufficient,” he translated for the benefit of the court. “My guardian is God ... He is the guardian of the righteous.” The chanting continued. When the judge made an effort to interrupt, Mohammed paused. “Go ahead!” The press gallery erupted in laughter. Kohlmann attempted to regain the initiative. He explained to Mohammed that he would have some – but not unlimited – opportunity to make statements.
“I do not mention the torturing,” said Mohammed. “I know this is a red line.” It was strange that the judge allowed these words to reach us in the press gallery. Why hadn’t he hit the switch and cut off the sound at the mention of torture? The chanting began again. “My shield is Allah...”
. . .
The CIA has admitted subjecting Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and two other detainees to waterboarding, an interrogation technique that involves strapping the prisoner down on a reverse incline, covering his face with a cloth and pouring water into his mouth and nose, which starts the process of drowning. According to Frank Casey – a pseudonym for someone familiar with the secret CIA interrogation programme who asked for anonymity – Mohammed held out longer than the others. On one occasion, said Casey, he grew angry because a woman was present. As if to demonstrate his anger, he managed to endure the waterboarding for more than 90 seconds, which stunned his tormentors. (Try holding your breath for a minute and a half.)
Casey said that over time some CIA interrogators began to revise their original impression of Mohammed as a monster and to develop a more nuanced view of the man. They sensed that he understood on an intellectual level that he would pay with his life for 9/11. Emotionally, however, he seemed to find it much harder to come to terms with this inevitability, and talked about his desire to see his two wives and children.
Rather than express any remorse for 9/11, Mohammed would explain to his interrogators that he was motivated by his deep opposition to US foreign policy, particularly American support for Israel and the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia. Sometimes, he would write letters to George W. Bush, complaining about his treatment. He often moaned about the food. But on other occasions he would joke with his interrogators. Casey said that when Mohammed realised how little the CIA had known about him before his arrest, he asked: “Don’t you people ever talk to each other?”
Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on al-Qaeda, said Mohammed’s ability to play different roles and straddle cultures had been the key to his success as a terrorist. He pointed to a time in the Philippines when Mohammed adopted a persona that would aid his efforts to plan attacks in south-east Asia. He wore jeans, cologne, jewellery, and was clean-shaven. “In his bag he carried Playboy and other colourful magazines. He even carried condoms to show he was coming to womanise in the Philippines.”
The aim, says Gunaratna, was to attract women who would help him to buy airline tickets and open bank accounts – all without leaving his fingerprints anywhere that could cause him problems. It was this kind of attention to operational detail, said Casey, that had helped Mohammed to evade the CIA for so many years. He had shown his theatrical penchant in his original 9/11 plan, which involved hijacking 10 aircraft. After nine had been flown into buildings, Mohammed would land the tenth at a US airport, kill all the male passengers and then deliver a speech denouncing American foreign policy. As the 9/11 Commission said, it was “theatre, a spectacle of destruction with Khaled Sheikh Mohammed as the self-cast star – the super-terrorist”.
The Guantánamo courtroom provided Mohammed with the perfect stage for what would almost certainly be his last performance, a blend of self-appointed roles including the imam, the lawyer, the defendant, the translator and the provocateur-in-chief. Everybody else was a bit player. “There was politics at play both by the government and the lead defendant. The interests were aligned,” said MuhammedAlly, the observer from Human Rights First. “The government is rushing to execute them this year and some of the defendants want to be martyred.”
Mohammed knew exactly how he would respond to the courtroom script. When asked whether he understood that he could face the death penalty, he responded calmly: “Yes, this is what I wish ... I have been looking to be a martyr for long time.” Was he sure he understood? “I understand very well.”
Then he started reciting from the Koran again: “Nothing shall befall us save what Allah has ordained for us.” The judge, sensing that he was losing his battle to convince Mohammed to accept legal representation, urged him to keep an open mind and to talk to his lawyers. But speaking on behalf of the advocates, Mohammed shot back that Kohlmann would not give the lawyers a chance to speak in court. The military commissions, he said, were a “contradiction” and the defendants had been tortured before arriving in “Inquisitionland”.
Finally, the two men reached a compromise of sorts. Kohlmann said that Mohammed could represent himself, while Mohammed agreed to have his lawyer, Captain Prescott Prince, present in case he needed advice. Afterwards, Prince admitted that the proceedings had been “disorderly but necessary ... I am sure it was not pretty from the gallery.”
. . .
An arraignment in a federal court is normally a relatively simple process, but the events at Guantánamo Bay that day were far from normal. Taking their cue from Mohammed, each defendant in turn insisted on invoking the legal right of pro se to represent himself before the court. The judge spent most of the day trying to establish whether the five men were competent to make a potentially pivotal decision that would signal a clear and complete rejection of the legal process that had been put in place to try them. Lawyers for the five repeatedly asked the judge to postpone the arraignment, arguing that they had not had enough time to forge a relationship of trust with their clients, particularly since the counsel provided for the five accused by the military wore the same uniforms as the prosecutors and jailors.
As well as their free military counsel, the defendants were entitled to appoint civilian lawyers at their own expense (Mohammed had two, whose fees were paid by the American Civil Liberties Union), but the process is complicated by the fact that civilians must obtain security clearance because of the quantity of classified information involved in the cases.
“It was ridiculous what happened because none of the lawyers were ready for their clients to start answering questions about who they wanted for their lawyer,” said Major Jon Jackson, an Army lawyer representing Hawsawi.
Rejecting the criticisms from the defence, Colonel Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor for the military commissions, argued afterwards that the defence team had not appointed civilian lawyers until late in the process. He said such complaints “cannot be reason to postpone something as elementary as an arraignment”. The judge seemed to agree. While he showed great patience with the defendants, it was clear that the defence lawyers would not get the same treatment.
“Sit down, sit down, sit down,” he bellowed on one occasion at Thomas Durkin, the civilian lawyer for Bin al-Shibh. Lachelier, the Navy lawyer representing Bin al-Shibh, argued for a delay because she had only found out the night before that her client was taking psychotropic drugs that might impair his judgment. “What part of ’No’ don’t you understand?” was the judge’s response to her plea. Several weeks later, recalling the exchange, Lachelier described it as “crushing”. “It showed a lack of desire to make this fair. It was purely let’s go through this script, let’s go through the motions,” she said. “I did start wondering whether I was just going to be a tool in their scheme.”
After ruling that Mohammed could represent himself, Kohlmann moved on to Bin’Attash, asking him a series of perfunctory questions that provided ample opportunity for him to reject the proceedings. He too was ruled competent to represent himself.
The case of Bin al-Shibh proved more complicated, not least because he contradicted what Lachelier had said about the possible effects of the medication on his judgment. Whether it was due to his medication was unclear, but Bin al-Shibh appeared different – he was rather less composed than the others – and was the only one of the accused who was shackled to the floor.
The man, who by some accounts was the intended 20th hijacker but who failed to obtain a visa to enter the US before 9/11, asked Kohlmann to pronounce his name correctly. Then he joined Mohammed and Bin’Attash in rejecting the court, arguing that he was subject only to the laws of God and had “perfect ability to represent myself”.
“I do understand that I will be killed for the sake of God,” Bin al-Shibh said, “but I don’t understand that I am guilty.” He said he had studied Islamic jurisprudence and sharia law while in college. Had he ever used this knowledge in his work? “Not officially,” he replied, to laughter in the media room.
When the discussion turned to his medication – “I am forced to take this medicine and if I do not my situation will be worse” – the judge on several occasions cut the audio feed to the gallery where the reporters sat. Kohlmann ultimately declared that Bin al-Shibh seemed competent to represent himself, but said he would reserve final judgment until he received more information on the medical issue.
Al-Baluchi was next in line. The best English speaker of the five, he touted the same lines – “I am here after five years of torture” – before dismissing his lawyers, with whom he had clearly established a rapport. He looked across at his counsel and said, apologetically: “No offence, lawyers.”
Baluchi provoked more laughter when he responded to Kohlmann’s question about his education by stating that he was a “Microsoft-certified computer engineer”. He, too, proved well able to use the occasion to his advantage. “This government ... tortured me free of charge for all these years ... If the government had given me a lawyer on the first day I was arrested, I would have appreciated that.”
His military counsel, Lt Commander Brian Mizer, later complained that Mohammed had intimidated al-Baluchi into representing himself. In another last-ditch attempt to persuade one of the five to change his mind and accept legal representation, the judge cautioned Baluchi that it was “unwise” to represent himself. “For me, the proceeding itself is unwise,” Baluchi replied in fluent English. He was permitted to dismiss his legal team.
Kohlmann finally came to Hawsawi, whose demeanour at the back of the court suggested he was suffering mental or physical problems. After his lawyer, Major Jackson, argued that Mohammed had intimidated his client into dispensing with his legal team, the judge agreed to address the issue on a future occasion.
Afterwards, Rosenberg claimed that “It was just sort of political, legal, military theatre we had never seen before.” Maybe so, but the drama had one final act to go. Before Kohlmann closed the proceedings, Bin’Attash – now acting as his own counsel – had a procedural question to address to the court via his interpreter.
“Will [we] be buried in Guantánamo,” he asked, “or will our bodies be sent back to our countries?”
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s Pentagon and intelligence correspondent
As told to Sarah Duguid
I’m a courtroom illustrator and in June I went to Guantánamo Bay to cover the trial of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. The newspaper group that had hired me wanted me to get a picture of him as quickly as possible.
But I struggled to get a decent view during the trial. Security for the alleged 9/11 conspirators was incredibly high. The courtroom had been moved, and all observers had to be seated behind glass. Court officers wouldn’t allow me to use binoculars – and to make matters worse, inmates at Guantánamo have their prescription glasses exchanged for glasses with an elastic strap, rather like swimming goggles. KSM, as the prison staff call him, had a thick beard and was wearing a pair of these goggles. It made it very difficult to get a good likeness.
Then, gradually, I noticed that KSM kept looking at me. He would turn his head, look directly at me, and then raise his goggles to the top of his head to expose his face fully. I thought, “Is he posing for me?” I decided it was just in my mind. But then he did it again. He kept on looking over at me. It was deeply unsettling.
When the break came, I took the drawing to the Pentagon officer to get it cleared. He took it through to KSM’s lawyers and I went back into the gallery. While I was gathering my stuff, my escort nudged me. KSM was in the courtroom, holding my picture, and shaking his head.
A few moments later the door opened. “KSM doesn’t like the nose. He wants you to change it. He wants you to go and get his FBI photo off the internet and look at that nose as reference,” said the Pentagon official.
I was taken to the media tent to search the internet for his photograph. I found the picture of him taken shortly after he was arrested in Pakistan. It was a terrible photo – not the picture I think he intended me to use – but the only one I could find in the time. So I ran back, went through all the security again, changed the nose on the drawing and handed it back in, all in under an hour. This time, KSM approved.
I had first gone to Guantánamo Bay to illustrate the trial of Canadian detainee Omar Khadr in 2006. Back then, things were very different. I was told by the court officer that in no circumstances could I draw Khadr’s face. During the trial, officers kept on looking over my shoulder and telling me to erase things from my picture.
Things had begun to change by the time I returned in 2007 for the trial of David Hicks, an Australian suspect. This time I was told I could draw faces. But when they took me into the courtroom, I was seated directly behind Hicks – who had a huge mop of hair and I couldn’t see a thing. I begged the senior court officer to let me move but she was intransigent, even though I told her I was there to do a job and could hardly draw the back of someone’s head. It was only when I said that I may as well leave that she allowed me to move. “But you can’t move your drawing table,” she added.
So by the time I was at the trial of KSM, I was used to the complications of working at Guantánamo. But still, it was the strangest and most difficult day of my working life. I had been in New York City on the day the Twin Towers were hit. Because I had had personal experience of September 11, it was disturbing, and unpleasantly intimate, to see the man said to be behind the attacks touching one of my drawings.
I still haven’t worked out to this day what drove him to take such an interest. Could he really have been that vain?
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