Graeme Wood

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Mastermind

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind

By Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer

Hachette, $22.95

The best-known photograph of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, admitted mastermind of the September 11 attacks, is one of those images that cannot be unseen. Bleary-eyed and disheveled, he sports a stubbly double-chin, and so much body hair that you’d think he could be lifted up by the scruff of his neck, like a kitten. Within hours of the photograph’s release, shortly after his capture in Pakistan in March 2003, Internet jesters noted a resemblance to the hirsute porn star Ron Jeremy (himself a prolific producer of cannot-be-unseen images).

Capturing Mohammed probably did more to disrupt global jihad than any other single act by the U.S. government — certainly more than the execution of Osama bin Laden, however satisfying that may have been. KSM, as he is known, spent over a decade engaged in nearly full-time violent conspiracy, and Bin Laden’s face became more famous not because he put more plans into action but because he bloviated more on camera. While Bin Laden orated, KSM hatched plots, dispatched bombers and shuttled money around the planet to fund schemes. For a decade, nearly every time a jihadist tried to blow up a plane, or bomb a synagogue, he did so under the tutelage and advice of KSM.

 

It’s a surprise and disappointment, then, to find that the story of KSM’s life and capture is such a bore. The authors of “The Hunt for KSM,” Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer, are perfectly adequate reporters, and theirs is the best single-volume resource on KSM. But KSM’s ten years spent minutely plotting attacks turn out to be quite a bit less riveting than, say, the more grandiose and operatic life of Osama Bin Laden.

 

KSM was born in Kuwait to Pakistani parents; he is Baluchi, and his surviving family members live in Iran and Pakistan. He studied engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University — a number of Middle Easterners converged there in the 1980s — and first came to the serious attention of U.S. authorities when they discovered he had wired a few hundred dollars to the 1993 World Trade Center bombers from Dubai. Subsequently he went to Manila and plotted to blow up trans-Pacific airliners; a later stint took him to Kuala Lumpur before he returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan, connected with Bin Laden, and ultimately sent the 9-11 hijackers off to execute his plan.

 

“The Hunt for KSM” follows the FBI quest to gather information about him, starting with just the name “Khalid Shaykh” from the wire transfer, and finally emerging as a full portrait of a diligent psychopath. By mid-2002, after interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the government knew that KSM occupied the key operational role in Al Qaeda, and the FBI and CIA competed to find and arrest him. No one seems to have doubted that he was in Pakistan, and sure enough, after more than a year of feverish searching and poring over documents, cell-phone logs and passwords, US agents located an informant who could text them (“I am with KSM”) from KSM’s bathroom in Rawalpindi. A joint Pakistani-U.S. operation took KSM by surprise in the middle of the night. He was doped up on sleeping pills and still in his jammies.

 

Part of what’s dissatisfying about this narrative is the familiarity: readers of magazine stories from the last decade, or Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning “The Looming Tower,” know many of the basic outlines of Al Qaeda’s genesis. Here, details are filled in but do not illuminate. The authors provide a few specifics about KSM’s cell-phone security procedures (not great — he swapped out phones but not always SIM cards, leaving himself vulnerable to tracking). They don’t manage, however, to explain how such a man becomes a terrorist mastermind. Pakistan contains vast numbers of radicalized Islamists, and a frightening number of violent ones. But there’s only one KSM, and readers will finish[[edit ok, to avoid ‘one…one’?]] this book still wondering how such a man comes into being.

 

The greatest virtue of “The Hunt for KSM” is to confirm what observant readers have long known about Al Qaeda operatives: that they simply aren’t that sophisticated, and never have been. They are highly likely to blow themselves up with their own bombs, as the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef nearly did in his Manila apartment. They are easily distracted: KSM used codes over the phone, but these were sometimes too simple to be effective, and sometimes so complex that the messages’ recipients couldn’t make any sense of them. KSM used a Yahoo email address for sensitive correspondence. His password was “hotmail.”

 

Is it comforting to know that jihad’s greatest terrorist was also a bit of a fool? Yes: foolishness gets you caught. (After three years of shuttling from C.I.A. black site to C.I.A. black site, KSMarrived at the prison in Guantanamo in 2006.) On the other hand, the world is full of fools, and there is danger in numbers. One gets the impression from this book that KSM’s potency was not in the brilliance of his plots but in the sheer volume of them. If you send off dozens of suicidal young men to kill airline passengers, eventually one will succeed in lighting his shoes on fire. Apparently it doesn’t take much. Of course, none of these young men seem to have had the wherewithal to step onto a plane on their own; they all did so under orders. Taking away the source of those orders is probably worth a great deal.

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