War By Manhunt: Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

By Swati PandeyJuly 8, 2012

The Hunt for KSM by Josh Meyer and Terry McDermott
Manhunt by Peter Bergen

UNLIKE WARS, MANHUNTS promise a sort of tidiness. They begin and end with images — a charcoal sketch or youthful mugshot — and end with grizzled defeat or something gorier, confirmation that the good guys won. Two of the most important manhunts of the last decade have been far from tidy because they became confused with, interrupted by, or subsumed in what was called the War on Terror. The signature crime of both men forced a realization that terrorists could wreak enough destruction, even on American soil, long defended by the world’s best army and protected by its biggest oceans, to be on par with an enemy state. Rather than hunt Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed outright with law enforcement, the United States declared war.

For years after 9/11, no one even knew Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the architect of the World Trade Center attack, the grand strategist of terrorism, “the ghost of our times,” in the words of Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer — was wanted. When Mohammed was finally imagined, named, sought, and captured, the conclusive and famous photograph of him was staged not in standard mugshot format, but in a mode clearly meant to shame. The man who had evaded the technology and intelligence of the most powerful country in the world had to be made to look down and out. A CIA agent mussed his hair, put him in an ugly t-shirt with a loose neck, and caught him making a haggard grimace.

Unlike Mohammed, Osama bin Laden’s photograph was everywhere, in large part because the terrorist himself, rather than his hunters, encouraged its proliferation. George W. Bush evoked the paradigmatic era of manhunts — the Old West, with newborn American law extending bravely into lawless lands — and said he wanted Osama, dead or alive. You could hear the Bon Jovi and see the sepia-toned poster (the New York Post mocked one up). When Barack Obama caught Bin Laden, realizing that “alive” wasn’t prudent, his administration botched the final photograph. Then-CIA head Leon Panetta promised it; the White House retreated; faked photos of Bin Laden, brains blown out, eyeball exploded, substituted.

Wars and manhunts have been confused before, in that other open-ended conflict, the War on Drugs (which itself has mixed up with the War on Terror in poppy-growing Afghanistan to disastrous results). But for decades, from 1960s leftist protestors to the lonely white male bombers of the 1990s, American law enforcement answered terrorism with manhunts, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and prosecuted in civilian courts. The goals of manhunts were always evidence, verdicts, and inmates. The goals of war, alternately, were intelligence, victory, and bodies. Since the start of the war on terror, its supporters on the left and right have argued that the old way of handling terrorism is ineffective and even dangerous: evidence exposes intelligence; verdicts threaten victory; inmates demand habeas corpus. (Bodies make no demands but they do anger allies and enemies alike.)

Books on Mohammed, by McDermott and Meyer, and on Bin Laden, by Peter Bergen, are titled and framed according to the manhunt. They are as tightly told as a Western, starting with the beginning of the hunt, introducing the pursuers, men and women no one would want on their trail, detailing their daring tactics, and ending with a captured man. But even though they end with their men, with a largely vanquished Al Qaeda, with a waning Iraq war and a waxing Arab Spring, both books are necessarily concerned with — and their stories complicated by — the way we hunt terrorists, the way we fight the war on terror, the way those methods interact, and what it means for the future of our country and our role in the world.

Eight years before 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew, who went by the name Ramzi Yousef, attempted to blow up the World Trade Center. Until the 1993 attack, McDermott and Meyer note, the U.S. had little framework for fighting international terrorism; it didn’t need one. The FBI handled domestic terrorism, considered a bum gig because the stuff of promotions — interviews, arrests, convictions — was rare. Yousef’s attack forced American bureaucracies to ad lib, pitting the FBI and CIA in a battle of egos and turf that contributed to the failure to detect 9/11 and the failure to capture KSM in the years after.

The FBI-CIA rivalry is well-documented in the 9/11 Commission Report and briefly discussed in Bergen’s Manhunt. But in The Hunt for KSM it is central to the story. As the authors write within their first several pages, “The FBI wanted evidence; the CIA needed intelligence.” Intelligence had to stay secret, evidence had to go public. Intelligence might be acquired by torture — though the effectiveness of that method is thoroughly critiqued by the authors — but evidence had to be clean. The authors dramatize what could be a dryly bureaucratic discussion through a moving subplot, which follows a relentless FBI agent named Frank Pellegrino.

Pellegrino never stopped hunting for KSM after the 1993 attack, when he first appeared on the radar for sending a $660 check to one of Yousef’s accomplices. Along with his partner Matthew Besheer, Pellegrino traveled the world looking for evidence and witnesses against Yousef and realizing that Yousef’s uncle was everywhere, plotting assassinations, setting up airplane bomb tests in Tokyo, networking in Bosnia, Chechnya, and the intersection of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, a place the authors call the “Star Wars bar for terrorists and organized crime syndicates.”

McDermott and Meyer offer a particularly thorough explication of how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed became Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, elaborating on the story McDermott told in his fascinating portrait of the banality of the 9/11 terrorists, Perfect Soldiers. The authors interweave the long history of migration, factionalism, and radicalization in the Arab countries. KSM was the utmost outsider, an ethnic Baluchi growing up poor in Kuwait; an Ay-rab in grad school in North Carolina in the 1980s; a South Asian among Arabs; a stick in the mud among moderate Muslims. His status filled him with resentment but granted him flexibility of association — he couldn’t have been KSM without both. He was well-educated, capable of building trenches in war zones, working for government ministries in the Emirates, fundraising like a one-man terrorist super PAC, and teaching bomb-making and American assimilation to the 9/11 hijackers.

Though KSM ordinarily seems like a brilliantly methodical mayhem-maker in the book, his hopes for the grand finale of 9/11, confessed to Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, reveal a quixotic, delusional hope, one that captures the whole tragedy of terrorism, its desperate ineffectiveness, the gulf between method and message. KSM explained, “I would land a final airplane in the middle of the United States and walk out onto the tarmac and explain to the Americans why this terrible thing had happened and what they ought to do to prevent it from happening in the future.” As the 9/11 Commission Report said, “This is theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as self-cast star — the superterrorist.” But Bin Laden, the real star, not to mention the director and producer, couldn’t be upstaged. He okayed the plot without the final plane.

Barring Pellegrino and Besheer’s efforts and a few arrest attempts thwarted by diplomatic concerns or reluctant higher-ups, KSM was ignored by every individual or organization that might have hunted him down. When 9/11 hit, the partners knew instinctively that KSM was behind it, but the Bush administration sidelined the FBI in favor of the CIA and focused on Osama bin Laden above all. KSM, meanwhile, rose to chief of Al Qaeda’s external operations. While Bin Laden made videos, KSM coached Richard Reid and Jose Padilla. He slit Daniel Pearl’s throat.

The revelation of KSM’s role in 9/11 and Al Qaeda came in March 2002, courtesy of the FBI, who were only allowed to question a captured terrorist because the terrorist was near death and the CIA interrogation team hadn’t arrived. They used a method perfected on the mafia, of “informed interrogation,” in which agents convince the captive that the agents already know far more than he, and building an almost amiable relationship with that captive until he reveals new information. McDermott and Meyer make a persuasive case that this method is as effective with terrorists as with mobsters, though they admit that unlike mobsters, the animating motive of the Islamic terrorist, that unshakeable faith, can be difficult to undermine. Still, in the riveting opening scene of this book, the dying man, holding the hand of an Arabic-speaking agent, confessed KSM’s role with absolutely no coercion.

The hunt for KSM began in earnest, with all organizations participating and even cooperating, sometimes in model form, as the authors note. A year later, KSM was captured. Al Qaeda rather poetically lamented, “The loss of KSM was like the melting of an iceberg. We can never replace him.” But as McDermott and Meyer grimly note, KSM is dangerous even as a captive. He is a poster child for why coercive interrogation — torture — doesn’t work: his week of sleep deprivation and dozens of waterboardings gave agents lies, dead ends, or at best, Al Qaeda small fry.

KSM has also confounded the American legal system. Whenever he has appeared before a judge, KSM sounds the notes that his nephew sounded a decade earlier, soapboxing for an end of American involvement in the Arab world. Fearing new terrorist attacks, security concerns, financial burdens, and perhaps worst of all, acquittal or leniency, the Obama administration reversed on its promise to try high-value terrorist suspects like KSM in civilian courts. KSM currently awaits trial before a military judge in Guantanamo. (At the moment, he’s seeking the right to wear camouflage to court.) The only photograph of him released since the staged T-shirt shot has him robed in white, bearded and beatific, looking a lot like Osama bin Laden, alive and well.

Osama bin Laden’s image — as mythological warrior, or as number-one-most-wanted outlaw — was the reason for his success and for his capture.

Peter Bergen, of all Western writers, has spent the most time considering that image and the man behind it. He was the last Westerner to interview him before 9/11, and previously authored The Osama bin Laden I Know, collecting his memories and those of other Bin Laden associates and relatives. He brings that knowledge to bear in Manhunt, beginning with a portrait of bin Laden’s retired life at Abbottabad. Bin Laden was richer than rich but often lived like an ascetic. He refused allopathic medicine but preserved the youthful black of his beard with Just for Men dye. Bergen shows him to be a serious man who makes no jokes, sticks rigorously to his version of Islam (however perverse), devotes himself to his family even when that means telling them not to join Al Qaeda.

The private Bin Laden, however ordinary or romantic, egotistical or self-effacing, created the public Bin Laden. He was a myth of a man who lived in caves like the Prophet Muhammad, appeared on T-shirts like Che Guevara or Mickey Mouse, and changed the course of history. He told, as Bergen writes, “a simple story about the world,” as Manichean as George W. Bush’s but reversed: America was evil, Islamic fundamentalists were good, and terrorism was the only way to restore the caliphate. Unlike KSM, within a few days of 9/11, everyone in America knew the name, face, and creed of Osama bin Laden. (Many knew as early as 1998, from the notoriety he attained after attacking American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.)

The United States and Bin Laden locked in an epic manhunt for ten years, one that waxed and waned with political necessity but never stopped, one that Bergen argues began because of major miscalculations on both sides. The U.S. never imagined Bin Laden would escape rather than try to fight to the death in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. And Bin Laden never imagined the U.S. would attack with such force, since Bill Clinton only sent a few cruise missiles to East Africa, for which he was roundly criticized at home and abroad. Failing to find him, Bush tried to marginalize Bin Laden, focusing on the war in Iraq and the brutal branch of Al Qaeda that sprouted there after the fact. But Barack Obama, once he took office, asked his aides constantly about Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The manhunt began anew, Bergen writes, in part because Obama’s aides grew tired of reporting that they had no news.

The break in the hunt began, according to Bergen, with CIA agent Barbara Sude, famed in intelligence circles for writing the August 6, 2001 memo warning of an imminent attack by terrorists against the U.S. To find Bin Laden, she outlined the “four pillars,” perhaps more accurately called the four weak links, of what or who could give bin Laden up: couriers, family, communications, and media. (As Bergen notes in a fascinating aside, female analysts were considered by some at the CIA, including Bin Laden hunter and author Michael Scheuer, to excel at counterterrorism because they never ignored the importance of relationships.) Agents honed in on one courier, called the Kuwaiti, because Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and another high-value capture downplayed his importance. The courier never quite betrayed Bin Laden, but he did betray the compound.

The Abbottabad house where Bin Laden spent his final days lacked comfort but boasted security: barbed wire, cameras, access only by a single dirt road, a garden covered by tarp to evade the eyes of satellites, and only the narrowest and highest of visible windows. Each day, Bin Laden delivered an address to his four wives and several children. (Bergen offers rather intriguing, if tangential, profiles of the four wives.) No one but the Kuwaiti ever seemed to ever leave. The compound was so vast and obviously expensive, outfitted for such intense security, that agents couldn’t help but think the man who walked the garden each day, “ the pacer,” was Osama bin Laden.

Leon Panetta asked agents to think of every possible way to breach the compound — including a morally questionable, never fulfilled fake vaccination program. (The doctor who headed it is now controversially being charged with treason in his native Pakistan.) But he also sought every possible explanation for who else could live in the compound because it made little sense that Bin Laden would hide in such plain sight, unless he imagined he was no longer being sought. Bergen does not speculate whether this was the case except to posit the compound as a retirement home in his first chapter.

Everything agents dreamed up was “red teamed,” shot through for holes and alternatives, in scenes reconstructed in interesting detail by Bergen. That process continued even after Panetta briefed Obama and administration officials began to weigh in on what to do: then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden aired their doubts; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her go-ahead despite the enormity of the potential fall-out with Pakistan; and Joint Special Operations Command head William McRaven began mocking up a raid on the compound. McRaven was the perfect hunter. He was a longtime student of such searches and of Special Operations. He had improved JSOC’s “jackpot” rate for capturing terrorists from 35% to 80% within only a few years.

When Obama had to decide whether to attack the compound, the evidence that Osama bin Laden lived at the compound was, as Bergen writes in an astonishing comparison, more circumstantial than the evidence that Iraq had nuclear weapons. The difference was that Bush’s decision was already made, and Obama’s was carefully deliberated, meticulously planned, and boldly chosen at the last possible moment. Bergen’s telling of the actual operation — flashing from Special Ops movements to administration anticipation, including the White House Correspondents Dinner, where Seth Meyers famously made a crack about Bin Laden having a show on C-SPAN — is riveting, even though we know exactly how a good manhunt, particularly this one, ends.

The war on terror has become, particularly since Obama became president, a war by manhunt. Terrorists or suspected terrorists are pinpointed and bombed by drones. Ignoring the ethical queasiness of a remote-control war and its civilian casualties, drones work. They have devastated Al Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan. They have eliminated the need for the complex lawyerly maneuvering that McDermott and Meyer rightly fear undermine the notion of American justice. Obama doesn’t try terrorists — he just kills them. Bergen, like most every liberal, is in the uncomfortable position of condemning drones while still admitting their effectiveness.

The U.S. survived the 9/11 decade with no further attacks on U.S. soil, no rise of an ethos called Binladenism, no clash of civilizations. The era of the truly global outlaw — the stateless man seeking to reshape the world, making world-historic plans from far-flung hideouts — may be over, in no small part because of the lessons learned from the hunts for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden and the wars pursued in retaliation for their crimes.

But manhunts and the wars that contain them are just politics by other means, to paraphrase the old Clausewitz adage, and the political fallout of the last decade could be severe. The U.S., with its several military incursions and its drones, appears to be stretching the rules of wars and notions of sovereignty to the breaking point. Pakistan, ground zero for those experiments, alternately wooed and violated by America for decades, closed its western border to U.S. and NATO troops and supplies in retaliation for an air attack that killed Pakistani troops, costing the U.S. $100 million a month. Obama’s pivot towards India — sending Panetta on a much-ballyhooed trip to ask the country to step up in Afghanistan — isn’t likely to soothe the relationship with Pakistan, or the one with China. (India, with its long history of either seducing or snubbing America, seemed none too eager to comply).

The fate of revolutions in the Arab world remain unclear, as the Muslim Brotherhood claims victory in Egypt and the military stays strong, while Libya, Syria, and Bahrain could go in any direction. Meanwhile Al Qaeda, like water moving to lower ground, is gathering strength in Yemen. That group, or any like it, will continue to find homes in places like Somalia and Sudan and wherever else governments fail to rule. Global poverty, economic shakeups, environmental degradation, and technological interconnectedness — as potentially demotic as democratic, as some have argued — could complicate every problem. Francis Fukuyama, the strategist who famously posited the “end of history,” elaborated in “Our Posthuman Future” on the possibility of human-controlled evolution as the last, and possibly most devastating, global conflict.

But until that strange end, no matter who we find and who we defeat, someone or some state will always rise to channel the dispossessed, the powerless, and the relatively deprived into war rather than social action, violence rather than protest, chaos rather than new orders.


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Swati Pandey is a writer based in Los Angeles.


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