When a burly Australian named Jack Roche volunteered to join the jihad in 2000, he was sent to Pakistan to meet with a man who had been searching for people just like him — Westerners who could be trained to launch terrorist attacks in their home countries without arousing suspicion.
Roche was taken to a house in Karachi and greeted warmly by a jovial, stout, and short man named Mukhtar, who then checked his passport with ultraviolet light to see if it was forged. The two spent several days discussing their mutual animosity toward the West and brainstorming about how Roche could best attack US and Israeli interests back home.
Then Mukhtar scribbled a note. “Give this to the Sheikh,”’ he told Roche, before instructing an associate to escort him to Afghanistan.
Upon his arrival, Roche exchanged hellos with the sheikh, gave him the note and spent a few weeks learning terrorist tactics at an Al Qaeda camp. He returned to Karachi and spent more time with Mukhtar, who sent him home with detailed marching orders.
Roche remembers, “His ideas were a lot bigger than my ideas.’’
The “sheikh’’ was Osama bin Laden. And as Roche would realize later, Mukhtar, which means “the brain’’ or “the chosen one’’ in Arabic, was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Roche never acted on the plots but served time in prison for related offenses. And while his run-ins with the sheikh and the cheerful Mukhtar occurred 12 years ago, they speak volumes about a fundamental disconnect that remains in the American public’s understanding of the 9/11 attacks and the threat it continues to face from Islamist terrorists.
Bin Laden was the visionary leader and founder of Al Qaeda, whose name is synonymous with the 9/11 attacks. But as Roche’s encounters show, he was a man who, even at the height of the terror network’s power, was far removed from the day-to-day operations in Al Qaeda’s ground war against the West.
It was actually Mohammed who was on the front lines, getting things done.
Mohammed, now about 47, was the originator, mastermind, and executor of the 9/11 plot after convincing bin Laden to contribute money and manpower.
Mohammed was also the one who recruited jihadist prospects like Roche, especially Westerners, much like a baseball scout, devising dozens of clever plots and attacks to put them in. It was also Mohammed who traveled stealthily around the world setting up still-intact terror cells, and who presciently engineered an underground railroad that smuggled key operatives out of Afghanistan after 9/11 so Al Qaeda could regroup with help from his friends in Karachi’s vast criminal underworld.
Some of his protégé sleeper agents — no one knows how many — are still on the loose, unknown and waiting.
This week, Americans celebrate the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs, which President Obama has described as delivering “justice’’ for the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
But real justice — and a sense of closure — can only come when the US government tries and convicts Mohammed, and does so in a credible and transparent court proceeding.
This Saturday, more than nine years after Mohammed was captured in Pakistan, the Obama administration will finally get that chance. Mohammed and four alleged associates are scheduled to be arraigned in a military commission proceeding at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay. A trial will follow.
There is more at stake here than justice for 9/11, as important as that is. A full and fair trial is also the government’s best, and perhaps last, opportunity to finally set the record straight about who was really responsible for 9/11, and about how Mohammed came to be the deadliest terrorist of our times.
The public also deserves to know why Mohammed waged such a relentless war against America, and how he was able to tap into the grievances of so many others and turn them to his cause.
One thing the largely untold tale of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shows is that it’s not some monolithic group like Al Qaeda that poses the biggest continuing threat to America, or even a symbolic leader like bin Laden. The real threat is the one extremely intelligent and charismatic person who can come out of nowhere and pull off something like 9/11 while the world is focusing on something else.
Josh Meyer is co-author of “The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.’’