One Down – More to Go
Garth Faile is chairman of the science department at Chowan College, a small Baptist school in North Carolina that seems to attract a disproportionate number of Middle Eastern students.
Chowan has an athletic department, but you probably have not heard of their team: the Braves; nor their volleyball team, women’s and men’s soccer, softball or any of their other teams. Chowan has produced no athletic pros, no Nobel Laureates, no one known outside the Southern Baptist Conference.
No one, that is, until Sunday morning, Mar 2, 2003, when Pakistani police using American intelligence and accompanied by CIA agents, captured Chowan’s most famous alumnus, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
According to Garth Faile, “He was a good student – a bit better than a B-type student.” At the time he was a pre-engineering student. Later, Mohammed studied engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.
By the 1980s, Mohammed and his brothers found themselves in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan as part of a group of expatriate Arabs under the spiritual guidance of Osama bin Laden. From this small group, bin Laden and Mohammed built the worldwide terror organization we know as al Qaeda.
In 1993, Mohammed’s nephew Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (also a member of this group) masterminded the attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in New York City. He was arrested in 1995 in Islamabad , and tried and convicted in the United States on Nov 12, 1977. He is serving a life sentence.
The same year, Mohammed was indicted in the U.S. for plotting to blow up 12 American passenger aircraft over the Pacific. He escaped arrest by the shortest of margins – five minutes or so, and fled the country to parts unknown.
He turned up again in 1998 as the planner of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, and the USS Cole bombing in 2000.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
The mastermind was later identified as Mohammed.
Karachi police believe Mohammed wielded the knife that slit Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s throat in January 2002, and they identify him as one of the men they shot and injured the following September. British-born Ahmed Omar Sayeed Sheikh, who is also thought to have been a member of the Peshawar expatriates, was sentenced to death for Pearl ’s murder, and three other members of the group received life sentences.
While bin Laden can be thought of at the inspiration for and the spiritual leader of al Qaeda, Mohammed must be thought of as the Chief Operating Officer, the person who runs the worldwide show. After the launch of al Qaeda by the Peshawar expatriates in 1988, he was responsible for establishing its global reach, setting up the network’s recruiting methods, and creating its communication channels, which always flowed from Mohammed down to the concerned cells, never the other way.
Mohammed is a big thinker. He introduced two central principles to al Qaeda.
First, he developed a “losing and learning” doctrine establishing that even if an al Qaeda operation failed, or if members were arrested or killed, the operation was still celebrated as successful so long as they learned, improved, and ensured there would be no repetition.
Some examples: Al Qaeda did not destroy the World Trade Center in February 1993, but we all know what happened on 9/11. In 1995, Mohammed’s nephew Ramzi failed to assassinate Pope John Paul II, but in January 1999 he tried again during a papal visit to Manila .
The second principle is flexibility. Under U.S. leadership, al Qaeda plans to attack hard government and diplomatic targets in southeast Asia were disrupted. So Mohammed refocused al Qaeda’s attention on softer targets, such as bars, cafes or night clubs frequented by westerners. This culminated in the October 2002, Bali bombing that killed 192 people.
Unlike his mentor bin Laden, Mohammed was a man of the world, equally at home in mosques as well as bars and brothels. He often disguised himself, tinting his hair, wearing wigs, sporting beards and moustache, wearing glasses. He blended in, wearing appropriate clothing. His English is excellent.
A recent tale from electronic intelligence records is that a dentist girlfriend received a phone call from him, telling her to look out the window and up. When she complied, Mohammed waved to her from a rented helicopter, simultaneously speaking with her by cell phone.
Mohammed’s capture is a significant blow to al Qaeda – perhaps the worst since its founding. Without him, there is no effective command and control for now. This means that individual cells will have to fall back on contingency plans put into place by Mohammed years ago. These plans call for initiation of specific actions that will be triggered by code words contained in broadcast messages from bin Laden or other leading members of the cabal.
Look for regular “speeches” on al Jazeera television, speeches given by leading Mullahs. Look for terrorist happenings shortly thereafter, scattered the world over, but especially within the United States . Look for “small scale” events for the time being, while the now disconnected elements of al Qaeda try to pull the organization back together for the next “big one.”
And keep your eyes peeled for the next “big one.”
It will happen – you can bank on it.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor