Terry McDermott: Why is the U.S. unable to bring this awful terrorist to justice?

By Terry McDermott

For the Los Angeles Times

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 1:09 a.m. MDT

This July 2009 photo downloaded from the Arabic language web site www.muslm.net shows a man identified by the site as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Among the many reasons Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who planned the Sept. 11 attacks, should be tried in an American court of law, there is this:

"I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head."

The murder of Pearl, the Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief, was but one of 31 attacks or planned attacks that Mohammed confessed to in front of an American military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay on March 10, 2007. The crimes of KSM, as Mohammed is known within the international counterterrorism community, occurred around the globe over the course of a decade. They ranged from the wholly aspirational — plots to assassinate Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II — to the horrifically real: Pearl was beheaded with a butcher knife.

For those keeping score, the confession to Pearl's brutal killing came five years after the crime. It has now been another five full years and still Mohammed remains in the limbo of Guantanamo. The limbo is ours, not his. Although he has claimed he would welcome martyrdom, he seems quite content to remain there in the military prison with his exercise machine, fellow detainees and the consternation that he has caused. The U.S. government, on the other hand, is still vexed about how to handle him.

The lines of debate have grown blurry over time, but the broad outlines have not changed. The George W. Bush administration and its supporters argued in favor of establishing military tribunals to try KSM and his fellow terrorism suspects. Barack Obama, when he was still candidate Obama, argued for closing Guantanamo and bringing the prisoners there to justice in the United States. Upon taking office, President Obama repeated this pledge, and in 2009, his attorney general announced that Mohammed and four of his cohorts would be tried in federal court in New York.

That announcement was greeted, predictably, with an uproar of opposition that grew to include majorities in both houses of Congress, which subsequently outlawed the spending of any federal money to transport the prisoners to the United States. Claims were made that holding a trial in New York would surely put the city at risk of terrorist attacks. Local politicians complained that the cost would be in the billions of dollars. A subsequent trial of a lesser terrorism figure gravely undermined many of the claims, but opposition remained entrenched.

Those opposed to trying KSM have argued that he would be able to hijack any proceeding against him and turn it into a publicity coup for al-Qaida and its sympathizers. A trial might inevitably be a circus of some sort, but a propaganda victory for radical Islam? Hardly. Mohammed has been a perplexing figure on the few occasions when he has appeared in semi-public proceedings at Guantanamo. He is a curious, compelling but an almost clownish presence. As a propagandist, he's too comical and grandiose to be anything but an utter failure.

At the same hearing at which he issued his confessions, Mohammed likened himself to George Washington leading an army in revolt. In war, he said, deaths are regrettable but unavoidable. If you accept Mohammed's notion that he was, indeed, engaged in war, there is a certain logic to this statement. The United States over the last three-quarters of a century has dropped uncounted tons of explosives on cities and villages as well as legitimate military targets, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocents. You can't, however, in any meaningful way stretch your definition of war to encompass the willful murder of civilians such as Pearl.

The government has recently signaled it might finally be ready to begin formal proceedings against KSM, bringing him before a military commission in Guantanamo. Such a commission would be heavily censored, and coverage would be limited. It would be a poor substitute for a trial before an American jury.

If putting on a trial for the crime at the center of the controversy — the Sept. 11 attacks against New York and Washington — is too much to undertake, why couldn't the government do a test case first? Why not try KSM for the relatively simple, if no less venal, execution of Pearl? We already have his confession on file and, as he boasts, video evidence of his "blessed right hand" caught in the act.

Terry McDermott is the author, with Josh Meyer, of the forthcoming book, "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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