Book Review: The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer
Though The Hunt for KSM is not written as an epic, it nevertheless begins in medias res, during the 2002 takedown of an Al-Qaeda senior lieutenant in Afghanistan, Abu Zubaydah. Allegedly quite knowledgeable about past terror plots and upcoming ones, Zubaydah – under subsequent questioning by the FBI and still recovering from gunshot wounds – made a startling revelation. He told his questioners that “Mukhtar,” whom bin Laden earlier had praised for planning 9/11, was in fact Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then the target of a long-running but separate investigation. Thus inquiries into 9/11 and so many other past attacks converged and trained the United States’ sights on “KSM,” as he is almost universally known.
From the Zubaydah operation, co-authors Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer steer us backwards, first to KSM’s younger years in Kuwait and later at two North Carolina colleges. The pair then embark on compellingly narrated tour through each major phase of the arch-terrorist’s jihadist life: to name a few, the World Trade Center and Bojinka plots, KSM’s evasion of U.S. criminal investigators in Qatar and the Philippines, his devising and supervision of the 9/11 attacks, Zubaydah’s apprehension, and KSM’s betrayal and capture in 2003. After discussing KSM’s interrogation – enhanced and unenhanced – and transfer to Guantanamo (where he remains), the authors choose bin Laden’s 2011 killing as their stopping point.
The book warrants the same “A-plus” that Ben Wittes gave in these pages to Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent, and for many of the same reasons. Like The Triple Agent, The Hunt for KSM is a gripping, digestible-on-a-weekend-trip piece of journalism. The narrative’s two hundred and eighty-seven pages would make a compelling detective or spy novel, even if the events it depicted were not true. Once started, I scarcely could put it down.
And much as Warrick did in The Triple Agent, McDermott and Meyer also have compiled many revealing details about KSM – ones which, I suspect, will be of great interest to readers who generally are familiar with but not experts on the 9/11 attacks. Such details comprise the book’s rich portrait of its subject: KSM maintains ties with his Baluch clan, but also moves among many cultures, being fluent in four languages and having lived in or traveled to places as far-flung as Brazil and the Philippines. He insists on strict security protocols, yet occasionally travels under his own name or wanders into public view, even after the dragnet for him has shifted into its highest gear. He takes special steps to ensure that Daniel Pearl’s killing is as savage as possible, and counsels Jose Padilla on how to maximize casualties during the bombing of buildings – but he also tells jokes, flirts, and writes poems to wife of a U.S. interrogator. He is, in the view of an FBI official, “the kind of guy you could sit down and have a beer with, if he hadn’t been one of the worst mass murderers in American history.”
In telling the mass murderer’s story, the authors draw heavily on interviews with those closest to the manhunt for him – members of KSM’s family, and U.S. and Pakistani officials who chased him for so long. One “CIA official with direct knowledge of the investigation” into KSM apparently spoke to McDermott and Meyer about the cultivation of a CIA asset who befriended KSM, and reported closely on his activities, during the latter’s brief tenure as a civil servant in Qatar. Intelligence sources also inform the book’s account of KSM’s longtime acquaintance, a Baluch who volunteered to assist the CIA in 2002 and ultimately arranged for the meeting that lead to KSM’s dramatic capture. (Of course, there’s a good deal of attribution to unnamed and only generically described intelligence personnel – worthy of consideration by the scrupulous reader, especially amidst today’s climate of leaks and investigations, but entirely unsurprising given the authors’ chosen topic.)
The Hunt for KSM is a factual account. It does not test a thesis against evidence or offer analysis or counsel policy. Despite this, the authors might inferentially have drawn some conclusions of their own. An obvious one, not stated in the book but nevertheless strongly implied by its narrative, is that bureaucratic bickering seriously hampered the KSM investigation both before and after his capture. That much follows almost inevitably from the book’s many accounts of needless and mission-crippling inter-agency antagonisms – between the CIA and the FBI, between the FBI’s office for the Southern District of New York and the New York Police Department, between the Criminal Investigation Task Force and the Joint Task Force in charge at Guantanamo, and so forth.
Likewise, consider the roadblocks thrown in the path of Frank Pellegrino, a central character and the FBI agent “who, by any measure, knew the most about KSM.” Despite this, his role in the 9/11 investigation was marginalized, at the very moment when his input might have been especially valuable. In 2003, this seasoned agent is not permitted to “go anywhere near” a freshly captured KSM – the latter’s questioning having been farmed out to CIA contractors who were brand new to the interrogation game and knew relatively little about the target and his vast network. McDermott and Meyer tell us that the contractors “wouldn’t have known what to do if their prized captives had suddenly agreed to tell them all about the workings of al Qaeda and its ongoing operations.” A high point in The Hunt for KSM is when, in 2007, Pellegrino at last is allowed to interrogate the terrorist whom he has tracked for more than a decade.
McDermott and Meyer do make one explicit “policy” claim – though only in passing and at the book’s end. The Hunt for KSM closes with last year’s killing of bin Laden – for McDermott and Meyer, an acclaimed if strategically less than significant event, given the al Qaeda leader’s hermit-like seclusion and diminished power during the period before his death. More compelling, McDermott and Meyer suggest, is the threat that KSM continues to pose despite his ongoing detention. He continues to inspire copycats: Abdulmutallab’s abortive plot resembled a similar attempt by shoe bomber Richard Reid, who took his cues from KSM. Another of KSM’s protégés remains at large. Further, in formulating a joint legal strategy during their military prosecution, KSM’s military commission co-defendants initially yielded to his instructions. The removal of “Mukhtar” from the battlefield thus has lessened, but not destroyed, his lofty stature among jihadist extremists worldwide. And for that reason, even on the eve of bin Laden’s death, KSM “remained, in some real sense, in command.”
There’s flourish and exaggeration in that last quote, for sure. Still, it’s correct, at least up to a point, and not to be ignored going forward. An appraisal of KSM’s ongoing capabilities is finally not the point of this book, however. The Hunt for KSM instead aims to tell the reader who KSM is and what he did, debunk some crucial myths about him, and “place him and those who fought him nearer the center of the events of the last two decades, many of which he set in motion.” McDermott and Meyer more than achieve each of those goals.
(Wells Bennett is Special Correspondent for Lawfare, where he covers the 9/11 court cases. He also is a Visiting Fellow in National Security Law at the Brookings Institution.)