Terrorism's Missing Link Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Tim McGirk Karachi
Terrorism's Missing Link Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
Wed Mar 5 00:19:15 2003

Terrorism's Missing Link Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda's deadliest agent, is still at large—and more threatening than ever
By Tim McGirk Karachi - mail@web.timeasia.com


Wiping the sting of tear gas from his eyes, the Pakistani police officer surveyed the carnage in a grimy Karachi apartment last Sep-tember 11th. After a four-hour gunfight, one al-Qaeda member, Ramzi Binalshibh, was in handcuffs and two other terrorists lay dead on the floor. A female fbi agent crouched down to examine the blood-smeared bodies. Suddenly, she smiled and, to the surprise of the Pakistani cop, bounded over and gave him a kiss. "Do you know who you've got?" she asked. "You've killed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed."

If it were true, the prosecutors of America's war on terror would have been overjoyed. Mohammed, al-Qaeda's chief military planner, was one of the principal architects of the 9/11 attacks. His global terror network extends throughout the Mid-dle East to Southeast Asia. One Pakistani radical arrested for the kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl a year ago said that while two others pinned Pearl to the ground, it was Moham-med who dragged the knife across his throat. According to Western intelligence agencies, he is one of the most dangerous men on earth—perhaps even more lethal than his boss, Osama bin Laden.

But a fingerprint check later revealed that the dead man on the floor of the Karachi apartment wasn't Mohammed. The fbi was almost as crestfallen as the Pakistani cop dreaming of how he would spend his piece of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S. Government for Mohammed's capture.

Now, even as America prepares to wage war against Iraq, the men at the top of U.S. President George W. Bush's most wanted list from the last war—Mohammed, bin Laden, Taliban leader (Mullah) Mo-hammed Omar and bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri—remain at large. In Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's case, that's especially worrisome. Says one senior intelligence officer in Washington: "He's out there, aggressively planning stuff, while bin Laden appears to be spending most of his time trying to stay out of sight." Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, says: "Capturing Khalid would have cut al-Qaeda's operational ability in half."

With more than 100,000 American troops now stationed in the Persian Gulf, Mohammed's whereabouts are of urgent concern. Washington officials are anticipating "sympathy strikes" against U.S. forces by radical Islamists, and they fear that Moham-med may be able to quickly activate sleeper cells in the Persian Gulf states or recruit fresh terrorist volunteers for suicide attacks against these military targets. His network of agents in Kuwait (where he was born to a Pakistani father) and in Qatar—two key staging posts for the U.S. command—are still intact, intelligence experts say.

No one is taking the threat lightly. If bin Laden is the wrathful figurehead of al-Qaeda, Mohammed, 38, is its ringmaster of terror. Several of his captured cohorts have described him as "the brains behind 9/11." Yet he remains remarkably elusive, in part by moving almost constantly. Several times in the past six years, in far-flung cities such as Doha, Karachi, Manila and Rio de Janeiro, Western intelligence agencies closed in only to have him slip away. Fluent in Arabic, English and Urdu, Mohammed is known to use 60 aliases and as many passports. His identity is kept secret even from many of his al-Qaeda operatives.

In the Karachi shoot-out in September, Pakistani investigators say they came within hours of grabbing him. The day before, they raided another Karachi apartment and found Mohammed's wife, Karima, and their two sons, Hamza, 10, and Zad, 7. Moham-med frequently visited his family, police were told, sometimes arriving at the apartment disguised in an Afghan woman's burqa. Evidence elicited from the family led police and the fbi to hunt for Mohammed in the second apartment, where the next day they arrested Binalshibh, a senior planner for the 9/11 attacks, and shot dead two fellow terrorists.

Since then, Mohammed's trail has gone cold. Pakistani authorities kept his family in custody for several months after the raid, hoping to lure Mohammed into surrendering. But he refused the bait. A senior Pakistani antiterrorism officer, Brigadier Pervez Cheema, told Time that Moham-med may have left Karachi for the rocky coastline of Pakistan's southern Baluchistan province. Some investigators insist he is still in Karachi, while others say he may have slipped away via smugglers' trails and sea routes to Iran and then headed into the Persian Gulf, closer to the action.

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