Two decades later, fate of 9/11 mastermind still in the air

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (PHOTO: Legal team of Khaled Sheikh Muhammad via New York Times)

Two decades after the September 11 attacks, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on US soil that have been etched into the memories of countless Americans, the plot’s admitted mastermind has yet to be convicted as his trial slowly grinds on.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 57, appeared in a Guantanamo Bay military courtroom last week in his first trial appearance since COVID-19 began to ravage the United States. Mohammed and four others, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Walid bin Attash, and Abd al-Aziz Ali, face the death penalty for alleged war crimes linked to the September 11th hijackings that led to the deaths of almost 3,000 people.

Mohammed was captured in a joint operation by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in the city of Rawalpindi in 2003. In 2006, he was transferred to US Military custody at Guantanamo Bay and, by 2007, had confessed to his role as the mastermind behind, among other things, the 9/11 attacks, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Richard Reid shoe bombing attempt, the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing.

Mohammed’s trial is embroiled in legal process, with a new judge being appointed as attorneys for the alleged terrorist seek to chip away at the very foundation of the military commission. give some insight into what those arguments will hone in on.

“We are, it’s fair to say, attacking [the system,]” Gary Sowards, Mohammed’s lead defense attorney, said in court. “These proceedings are grotesquely substandard under notions of due process, international law, and, as the Eighth Amendment phrases it, regard for the dignity of human beings.”

Sowards told the new judge, US Air Force Lt Col Matthew McCall, that he plans to file motions pressing the issues of torture, the Military Commission’s authority, and Supreme Court precedent. The lead defense attorney told the court that Mohammed was subject to “traumatic” torture tactics including waterboarding and sexual assault.

“Well, first of all, unfortunately, as part of the CIA program, Mr. Mohammad was sexually attacked. That was part of his torture program,” Sowards said.

McCall, the fourth judge on the case, told the court he’s working hard to familiarize himself with its long history, and said he has no plans to leave the bench when he becomes eligible to retire in three years.

“I don’t know when I’m going to retire, but I don’t really — I probably will not be retiring in three years. So then I don’t feel the need to rush to try to get this case done on my watch. I’m going to be here,” he said.

Guantanamo’s military commissions court was established under President George W. Bush, and was implemented to prosecute various alleged terrorists. The Guantanamo Bay detention center, opened in the 2002, has been marred with controversy, and the Biden administration seeks to close it for good.

Amnesty International has said the camp’s practices of detention without trial and torture serve as violations of the due process clause of the fifth and fourteenth constitutional amendments. Nine inmates have died while in custody, three due to suicide, and several former prisoners have reported religious persecution, sexual abuse, and ongoing torture.

One inmate, Majid Khan, while in custody and had his genitals touched as he was hung upside down. A on the practice says Mohammed was waterboarded at least 183 times at several CIA black sites in Poland and Afghanistan, which escalated into a “series of near drownings.”

As , the Biden administration released its first Guantanamo detainee earlier this year in an effort to shut down the prison for good. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has told reporters that the administration is considering “all available avenues” to leave the controversial prison in the past.

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