The Magazine

The 'Most Prolific' Detainee

We learned a lot about al Qaeda from KSM, and not by asking nicely.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the principal planner of the September 11 attacks, was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. U.S. interrogators quickly went about the business of getting him to talk, and for good reasons. KSM's operatives were already here, inside America, planning attacks.

Shortly after KSM was detained, an Ohio-based truck driver named Iyman Faris was arrested by the FBI. Faris had reportedly been under suspicion beforehand, but U.S. authorities suddenly determined that they had to arrest him. It turned out that Faris, an al Qaeda-trained sleeper agent, had been dispatched to the United States by KSM to plot attacks on landmarks in the New York area, including the Brooklyn Bridge.

Then, in late March, a young Pakistani man named Uzair Paracha was arrested. He had been working out of an office in Manhattan's Garment District for a company owned by his father, Saifullah Paracha. KSM wanted Uzair to facilitate the entry of al Qaeda operatives and use the Parachas' import-export business to smuggle explosives into the United States.

Until this past week, it was not clear how U.S. authorities pieced together the details of this plotting so soon after KSM was captured. But the inspector general's report on the CIA's detainee interrogation program and two other CIA analytical papers--all three of which were released on August 24--fill in the blanks. It is clear now, if it wasn't before, that the CIA's questioning of KSM saved numerous lives, both here and abroad. The inspector general found that KSM "provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists including Saifullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, businessmen whom [KSM] planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States." His "information also led to the investigation and prosecution of Iyman Faris." KSM would become the "most prolific" detainee in the CIA's custody, giving up fellow terrorists and the details of plots around the globe.

The mainstream media and the left are heavily invested in the notion that the CIA's enhanced interrogation program was not only immoral and illegal, but also of dubious efficacy. It has long been assumed that the harshest interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, were at best poor interrogation tradecraft. The inspector general's report, which was written as an indictment of these practices, not as a defense, challenges that received wisdom.

In particular, the inspector general found that KSM was "an accomplished resistor" who "provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard," and much of his information was "outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete." KSM did talk about al Qaeda's desire to strike Heathrow Airport in London. But, as the CIA noted, KSM had good reason to believe that the Heathrow plot had already been compromised.

In September 2002, KSM's co-conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh, had been arrested in Pakistan. Binalshibh was the point man for the Heathrow plot, just as he was for the September 11 operation. Press accounts written shortly after Binalshibh's capture, and prior to KSM's, noted that Binalshibh was cooperating with authorities and had told them about al Qaeda's desire to hijack a plane to use in an attack on Heathrow. So KSM would have thought he was not giving up much, if anything, by discussing the Heathrow plot. Even so, the CIA found that KSM was concealing certain aspects of the Heathrow plot from his interrogators.

Soon, however, KSM became the CIA's most-important source of information. He provided details of al Qaeda's history, including aborted or stalled plots, and important context for understanding of how the terror network operated. The agency filled in many of the gaps in its knowledge in this regard. But Langley's men were primarily interested in stopping the next attack and saving lives, and in that regard the interrogations were an unequivocal success.

In its July 13, 2004, analysis titled "Khalid Shaykh Muhammad: Preeminent Source on Al-Qa'ida," the CIA concluded (emphasis added):

It will take years to determine definitively all the plots in which KSM was involved and of which he was aware, but our extensive debriefings of various KSM lieutenants since early 2003 suggest that he has divulged at least the broad outlines of his network's most significant plots against the United States and elsewhere in his role as al Qaeda's chief of operations outside of Afghanistan.