Somewhere in Guantanamo Bay, a short, stocky figure with a heavy, dark brow and a long, unwieldy gray beard sits in cell. He has been in the custody of the United States government since 2003, when he was captured and held in a so-called black site before being transferred to Gitmo. His name is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and he is the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
That claim to infamy sits atop a very long list of atrocities. He was the man who decapitated the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He planned the Shoe bomber attack, the Bali Nightclub bombings that left 202 people dead, and helped coordinate the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that killed six adults, including a pregnant woman in 1993.
None of these are speculation. Indeed, KSM has admitted to all of this and much more. The list of evil plots he designed is staggering in its length and its demented nature. Assassinations of John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were on his list. Attacks on the New York Stock Exchange, Heathrow Airport, NATO headquarters, Israeli embassies. countless other Jewish sites, and the Panama Canal, among many other landmarks, were on it too.
He and his also-incarcerated nephew, Ramzi Yousef, worked together on many of the these plans, as well as the Bojinka Plot, in which 12 American airliners would be blown out of the sky almost simultaneously using an ingeniously crafted IED. That plan still affects the way aviation security is performed today. Indeed, no one in history has had a greater impact on airport security than Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. It’s unlikely anyone ever will.
Yet, 19 years after his biggest attack was staged, and 17 years after his capture, KSM still has not stood trial for his crimes, despite being charged with the murder of 2,973 people.
The reasons for the delay are varied. There have been controversies over where he should be tried—in New York or Gitmo; whether it should be in a civilian court or before a military commission; and if evidence elicited via enhanced interrogation techniques could be admissible. Legal maneuverings by the defense designed to delay a trial, and, now, the Coronavirus, have pushed the date for the trial back even farther. It had finally been scheduled for January 2021, but today its date is again unknown.
Now comes yet another set back. The military judge recently assigned to the trial, Marine Col. Stephen F. Keane, recused himself just two weeks after receiving his assignment. Col. Keane wrote that he had “become aware of a significant personal connection to persons who were directly affected by the events of 9/11” as a his reason for recusal.
So, the man who gave Osama bin Laden his greatest victory still sits in his cell, reading and praying, as the American people wait two decades for justice.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, bin Laden’s chief advisor, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawihiri, remains free despite a bounty of $25 million from the United States. Zawahiri, now nearing 70, has been the leader of al-Qaeda since 2011. A combination of effective attacks against that organization by the U.S. military and the CIA, combined with with an increased focus on the Islamic State, seem to have decreased the vigor of the campaign to bring him and to justice. In fact, political scientists at RAND wrote just last month that “the U.S. government has been relatively blasé about al Qaida since Zawahiri took over in 2011. Some terrorism analysts even claim a living Zawahiri has done more harm to al Qaida than a dead one ever could.”
Still, the very man who whispered encouragement directly into bin Laden’s ear when operations against Americans like the U.S.S. Cole attack and 9/11 were approved remains at large. Some believe he is in tribal Pakistan, and there are reports that he has a serious heart problem that could fell him. But that seems reminiscent of the years of reporting that bin Laden’s liver problems were so severe he could die before capture. The key difference, of course, is age. Bin Laden was just 54 when he was killed. Zawahiri is 70.
It would be a grave injustice if Ayman al-Zawahiri dies peacefully in a camp among his friends and associates without being captured or killed. Considering the lengthy process that has kept Khalid Sheikh Mohammad out of the courtroom, one can speculate that even if Zawahiri is captured soon, legal wrangling might keep him from ever facing a commission or a jury. That would prove a short-coming in our judicial system—one that KSM and Zawahiri would enjoy, both physically and philosophically.