Throughout the modern age of terror, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has had the eerie ability to be at its center yet glimpsed only in the margins. He's been the ghost of our times.
In New York in 1993, he was nothing but a name at the other end of a modest contribution to a bomb maker's bank account. In Manila in 1994, he was again little more than a name, this time in a fax file buried in a laptop computer. In Qatar, he was the terror plotter who got away. In the months leading up to 9/11, he became an increasingly worrisome presence in the data raked into the nation's intelligence trough. He took on different names, different histories. None of it connected. None of it brought him out into the light. As time went on, he remained on the outside edge of anybody's ability to know quite who he was.
The art of investigation is in part the art of seeing, of finding a place to stand so that you can see. To see a ghost presents a special kind of problem. The American intelligence apparatus, under the right conditions and armed with the right information, can perform stunts Hollywood would be hard-pressed to imagine. It can zero in on a single man standing in front of a single cave in the farthest reaches of the Hindu Kush; it can extract a conversation from the back bedroom of a fourth-floor walk‑up in old, crumbling Cairo. It is a wondrous thing. Still, it is not magic; it needs a place to start, a place to stand. For six full months following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, half a year after four hijacked airliners had claimed nearly three thousand victims, the system had not yet found that point. The full and sustained efforts of the mighty American intelligence-gathering machine had yet to yield enough information to produce a single living man who was in any fundamental way responsible for the attacks.
It wasn't that the assumed perpetrators were unknown. The machine had identified a fairly long list of suspects. In fact, within minutes of the moment, 9:03:02 EDT, to be precise, when Marwan al‑Shehhi, an anonymous young son of an Emirati prayer caller, plowed United 175 high into the World Trade Center's South Tower — the moment, that is, when it seemed certain the airline crashes on that sparkling lower Manhattan morning defied coincidence and almost certainly were not accidents — people in positions of power correctly suspected who was behind the assault: Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization.
Six months later, a war had been launched, a government toppled, and victory all but proclaimed. Yet the net remained empty of big fish. This was not for lack of clues or want of trying. An army had been unleashed. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation chased tens of thousands of dead-end leads from coast to coast. The Central Intelligence Agency scoured the farthest reaches of the globe. And in the even darker reaches of space, the invisible web of satellites operated by the National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency caught and sifted billions of bits of data, telephone conversations, Internet chat, and e‑mail, and captured thousands of images. Other friendly organizations spanning the planet churned out their own steady storms of data. No, there was no shortage of information. There was too much — a blizzard of it, a whiteout so complete investigators routinely lost their way within it.
The nation's leaders and its security agents were beside themselves in their ignorance. One investigator described it as overpowering: "The amount of intel that was coming through was immense, and it was raw intel. We'd been used to looking at the processed stuff. We'd get an overnight [cable] about a bomb plot at six a.m. from NSA, and then by eight a.m. it'd be processed and it'd be nothing. You were overwhelmed by it." Everyone was petrified of the next attack, which they knew in their bones was imminent. They vowed to do whatever was necessary to stop it, but they really didn't know as much as they thought they did about who had produced the first assault. Al Qaeda, yes, about that all doubt had been obliterated. Bin Laden publicly crowed about his triumph. Between bin Laden at the top and the dead foot soldiers — the hijackers themselves — at the bottom, however, was a void.
We learned about the man who filled that void, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, not long past the day that many 9/11 investigators had first learned themselves. There was an invitation from a source to attend the retirement dinner of an agent from the FBI's vaunted I‑49 international terrorism squad in New York, which had spent the past eight years tracking Mohammed. The dinner adjourned to a raucous bar, where FBI, police, and firefighters had been gathering in the months since 9/11 — to circle the wagons, to commiserate about setbacks, and to celebrate small victories. As the graybeards of the New York field office drank and laughed and toasted the newly liberated retiree, the doors of the bar swung open and in swaggered a group of about a dozen much younger agents. It was the PENTTBOM squad, the mostly inexperienced agents who had been given the daunting task of conducting the actual criminal investigation into the attacks on New York and Washington. There was an agreement between journalist and agents not to discuss the investigation that night. But a few hours of drinks later, an agent was asked for any crumb of information he could provide. A tip. A direction to go in. Maybe even a name. The agent thought about it for a minute, looked around to ensure that he was not being overheard, and said in a stage whisper, "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."
In the ten years since, we followed those agents as they attempted to follow Mohammed. We soon learned that tracking the story of a ghost is not a great deal different from tracking the ghost himself. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the enigmatic empty center of every story he was in, always hidden behind the curtains, a wizard in his Oz.
Bringing KSM into focus — at least enough to learn who he was — took investigators years. Finding him took more time yet, and even after he had finally been run to ground he remained hidden. This time, his hiding places were furnished by the U.S. government. At the time of publication, KSM will have been in American custody for nine years, and still his story — and that of his pursuers — remains untold. There is a good chance his full story will never be told in an official venue. For reasons that perplex even its best friends, the United States has kept Mohammed in the shadows of its secret prisons for so long it seems likely he can now never be fully exposed to the light for fear of what he might say about what went on in the darkness. In the meantime, as myths tend to do when the truth is hidden, his legend has grown to mountainous heights and the sometimes heroic stories of those who pursued him have been banished.
We have attempted here to lure the ghost on stage, to dress him in his natural clothing, and to place him and those who fought him nearer the center of the events of the last two decades, many of which he set in motion.
From The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer. Copyright 2012 by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.