Khalid Sheikh Muhammad: Waging Jihad from Prison

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 6

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have long made clear to their lieutenants that the road to paradise can be found in the enemies’ prisons as well as on the battlefield. From prison, they argue, a captured al-Qaeda leader can mislead his interrogators, provide accurate but dated material that leads the enemy nowhere, or speak to the Muslim nation if the opportunity arises. Until last week, the most successful from-jail operation was run by captured senior al-Qaeda leader Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who described non-existent WMD cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaeda, a claim Washington used to support its case for war with Iraq. Al-Libi later recanted his claims, and he may still be smiling at the effects of his statement. Al-Libi’s laurels have now passed to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM) on the basis of his presentation to a U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay on March 10. Al-Qaeda’s former operations chief, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2003, made the most of his testimony before the tribunal in at least six areas, each of which benefits al-Qaeda and causes problems for the U.S. government. Clearly, KSM’s remarks were addressed to both Western and Muslim audiences [1].

Claimed Responsibility for Attacks: Without remorse or excuses, KSM admitted to having been involved in 31 operations and said he was ready for “what is coming to me.” In broken English, KSM continued, saying, “For this [the oath to tell the tribunal the truth] is not necessary, as I responsible, responsible.” Much of the Western media failed to read the statement closely, and as a result have defaulted to two incorrect conclusions, claiming either that no single person could have done what KSM claimed—and so he is egotistical—or that he was such an important and potent figure that now al-Qaeda is much less threatening without him. KSM, however, simply said that as al-Qaeda’s operations chief he was involved in one way or another in the group’s operations; surely there is no surprise there, and 31 events over an 11 year period can hardly be called excessive. KSM also made clear that some of the planned operations he described occurred “before I join al-Qaeda.” KSM was proud of what he and al-Qaeda have attempted and achieved in their “war” against the United States and its allies; for the millions of Muslims who support al-Qaeda, he will be seen as an able, active and effective military leader.

Victory is Possible: KSM’s testimony was a timely, if obviously uncoordinated, complement to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s March 11 criticism of Hamas for adopting a “defeatist” attitude in agreeing to join a unity government in Palestine [2]. KSM’s description of al-Qaeda’s dozens of operations over five continents depicts the group’s unique geographical reach and its determination and ability to hurt Islam’s perceived enemies. Indeed, KSM kept his well-known egotism in check and tried to keep the focus on al-Qaeda as a powerful group, saying al-Qaeda conducted the attacks and “what I wrote here, is not I’m making myself a hero, when I said I was responsible for this or that.” Convincing Muslims that they have a chance to defeat the vastly more powerful West has always been one of the most difficult tasks undertaken by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. KSM’s words will serve as an example of that ability that will stand alongside what the mujahideen believe are Islam’s coming victories in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eroding the CIA’s Anti-al-Qaeda Capabilities: Al-Qaeda leaders have claimed that their organization has been hurt most since 9/11 by the Pakistani army’s operations in the Pashtun tribal region and by the CIA’s rendition program. KSM smartly framed his presentation to further undercut the latter by claiming that he had been tortured by the CIA, adding that some of the information he previously provided was false and given under duress (al-Jazeera, March 15). Almost before he was done talking, the president of the military tribunal assured him that his allegations would “be reported for any investigation that might be appropriate” and prominent U.S. senators from both parties publicly called for KSM’s charges to be investigated and, if true, for the perpetrators to be punished (Washington Post, March 17). As an added bonus for al-Qaeda, KSM’s claims of providing false information will raise questions in the U.S. intelligence community and those allied with it about how much of KSM’s pre-March 10 information can be trusted as the basis for either operations or analysis.

Fanning Trans-Atlantic Flames: By claiming that he was tortured at the CIA’s hands, KSM has thrown more gas on the raging debate between the United States on the one side, and European governments, European Union institutions and the assortment of human rights groups over the issue of what to do with al-Qaeda and other Islamist prisoners. Furthermore, because the CIA is an easy and already much-used target by Europeans and the U.S. Congress, KSM was careful to broaden the target deck for U.S. critics by devoting much of his testimony to describing the “many, many people” who are innocent and being held in Guantanamo Bay: “So, I think God knows that many who been arrested, they been unjustly arrested.” KSM pleaded with the military tribunal’s president “to be fair with [the] other [innocent] people” who are being held, adding, “I hope you will take care of other detainees with what I said. It’s up to you.”

Keeping Focused on U.S. Foreign Policy: KSM uttered not a word about his, al-Qaeda’s, or Muslim hatred for the way Americans live, vote, or think, nothing about U.S. elections, liberty, or gender equality. Apparently sharing the belief of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri that few Muslims are or can be motivated by hatred for American liberty and society, KSM concentrated on the laser-like focus of his superiors: U.S. foreign policy. “For sure, I’m Americans’ enemies,” KSM said. Quoting bin Laden, KSM cited as reasons for this status as “American military presence in Arabian peninsula and aiding Israel and many things.” Because of U.S. policy in the Muslim world, KSM explained that he asked himself “What will I do?” His answer was, “This is the language [of war, creating victims]. Sometime I want to make great awakening between American to stop foreign policy in our [Muslim] land. I know American people torturing us from the seventies.” In his testimony, KSM hewed to the letter of al-Qaeda’s decade-old justification for the jihad it is waging: U.S. foreign policy is an attack on Islam and its followers, and al-Qaeda’s response is a “religious thing” to protect the faith.

Straight Talk about War: If any part of KSM’s testimony might be called refreshing, it was his constant lecturing of the military tribunal about the nature of war: “This is why the language of any war in the world is killing. I mean the language of war is victims.” KSM engaged in none of the charlatanism of Western discussions of war; he did not speak of surgical strikes, limited collateral damage, precision weapons, or casualty-free wars. Knowing history better than his interlocutors, KSM told the tribunal: “But your [sic] are military men. I did it [the list of attacks] but this is the language of any war…Military [men] throughout history know very well. They don’t war will never stop. War start from Adam when Cain he killed Abel until now. It’s never gonna stop killing people. This [killing and victims] is the way of the language [of war]…You know never stopping war. This is life.” Since Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA, said that, “War means fighting and fighting means killing,” the unchanging reality of war has seldom been better described than it was by KSM in his broken English.


1. All quotes from KSM are drawn from the U.S. military’s transcript of his testimony at Guantanamo Bay on March 10, 2007.

2. “Ayman al-Zawahiri Statement on Hamas, Afghanistan, and Egypt,”, March 12, 2007.