Not much to go on

March 16, 2007

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who the U.S. government has long believed was the organizer of the 9/11 attacks, confessed to them and to more than 30 other plots when he appeared before a military tribunal Saturday. We'd like to think it's all true, because if he stands head and shoulders above every other jihadist when it comes to terrorist plotting and he's in custody, the whole world can breathe a little more freely. But you have to consider the source.

Here is a man clearly committed to a holy struggle against the United States, which might in itself raise questions about his credibility in an appearance before an American military panel. The report by the 9/11 commission painted him as someone with a decidedly grandiose view of himself and his role in al-Qaida. (Zacarias Moussaoui, styled the "20th hijacker" until it became abundantly evident that he wasn't, suffered from the same exaggerated self-perception.)

Alternatively, some wonder if Mr. Mohammed is attempting to take the rap on a whole slew of plots to shield other participants.

What is known about him is that he has been in American hands for the past four years, the first three with the CIA at a secret location and the last at Guantanamo. It was reported as long ago as 2004 that he had been subjected to waterboarding. For what it's worth, he claims to have been tortured.

So who can guess what mixture of motivations went into this confession? He appears to be only slightly repentant. Is he broken? Is he being crafty? Did he bond in some strange way with his captors?

It would have been instructive to see Mr. Mohammed brought to trial - a real trial - because that might have elicited answers to some of these questions, and many more besides. But the secret prisons and military tribunals taint everything, and now that possibility is foreclosed. The information he has to offer is, in any case, of forensic and even historical interest, but it would seem to have little relevance in a world that has changed so dramatically since his capture, which came about on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The disastrous war that followed overshadows even 9/11.

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