Guantánamo Bay, Cuba
Latitude: 19 degrees 54 minutes north
Longitude: 75 degrees 9 minutes west
June 5, 2008
The courthouse is imposing: a large metal box. Several rings of fencing surround it. The barbs on the wire are three inches long and razor sharp. They glint in the sunlight. It is custom built for the trial of the century: that of the five 9/11 suspects. Almost two dozen lawyers, both civilian and military, and a handful of translators are present.
Just before 0900, the temperature is nearly eighty degrees, and it feels much hotter. There are two screening checkpoints. IDs are shown. No bags, no electronics, no water bottles with labels are allowed in court. After some prodding, a young man with the Coast Guard explains that the detainees think they are being poisoned if their water bottles look different from ours. There is no name patch on his uniform. Many of the sailors don’t want to be identified. They don’t want their families harassed. They didn’t ask for the Guantánamo assignment in the first place. When their fellow soldiers come back from Afghanistan and Iraq, they get a pat on the back, a well-done and a thank-you. Those who return from Guantánamo speak of sneers and dirty looks.
With surveillance cameras trained down on us, the ACLU observers and others are having a smoke. We are waiting in the gravel courtyard for the fi nal okay to enter. When the courthouse door opens, a blast of cold air hits us. Crossing the threshold, I wonder if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of 9/11, and his four co-conspirators ever feel Cuba’s oppressive heat or scan the picture-perfect waves of the Atlantic. Guantánamo Bay is a place where absurd thoughts intrude with regularity.
Every journalist signs in. We are shown to our seats. Reinforced glass separates us from the accused terrorists. They are no more than fifteen yards away. I am in the front row, just to the left of a pillar, with a fairly good vantage point. From what I can see, most of the men are not shackled. They wear white slip-on sneakers with no laces, like little girls. I have covered most of the big terrorism trials, and experience has taught me that the most important moments come when court is not in session. This pretrial period lives up to my expectations.
At the front left side of the court is the man himself—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. There is no resemblance to his mug shot that we, covering the trial, refer to as the terrorist’s John Belushi period. The disheveled hair and white T-shirt have been replaced by a head covering and a long white robe. His beard is now gray and well over six inches long. His glasses are military issue with thick black frames. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is smiling. Though the sound, which is controlled by the military, is turned off or is at least very low, we can see KSM gesturing wildly with his hands and talking at the top of his lungs. He greets his fellow co-conspirators like old friends at a high school reunion. The men are survivors. They withstood the worst the U.S. government could throw at them. The waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and pressure positions at the CIA secret prisons did not destroy them.
I am distracted by the sound of scratching. The sketch artist, Janet Hamlin, who watched 9/11 unfold from a rooftop in Brooklyn, is feverishly drawing on her sketch pad. First, she lays out the raw outline of the courtroom and the men. Color comes next. I jerk myself back because an extraordinary scene is unfolding before me. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is now motioning to the others. He wants them to follow his lead. He waves a single defiant finger in the air when he senses dissent from his plan.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is already working the system. He wants the 9/11 conspirators to act as their own attorneys. He mocks the proceeding by calling it “an inquisition.” His delivery and body language suggest he’s been practicing the line in his cell. KSM understands us better than we understand him. He knows that whatever he says will be reported around the world. A military source says KSM devours every story, every Web posting, every TV clip about him. Without question, he is al Qaeda’s media whore.
And then things get really crazy. For some unknown reason, a court security officer who is making decisions way above his pay grade thinks it’s a good idea for KSM to review Janet’s sketch. It’s the one where he dominates the picture. Turns out, KSM hates the sketch. He says the nose is all wrong. It’s too big or too ethnic or too something. It has to be fixed. KSM orders the sailors to get Janet his FBI mug shot. Apparently, he prefers this picture because he looks composed. His clothes are pressed. So Janet fixes the sketch to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s satisfaction. Within minutes, the sketch is carried to our live shot position on the tarmac about fifty yards from the courthouse. It is filmed by the pool TV crew and then broadcast to millions.
Later in the evening, I sit on the equipment box near the live shot position. The sun is dropping like a red hot ball into the Cuban hills.
“Who’s in control?” I say under my breath. “Us or the terrorists?”
• • •
The five 9/11 suspects are al Qaeda’s old guard. It would crush their mammoth egos to know that they would soon be yesterday’s news because the next wave of recruits was about to crash on America’s shores.
There is Faisal Shahzad. On a Saturday night in May 2010, the naturalized American of Pakistani descent drove a crude car bomb into Times Square. Though Shahzad was trained by the Pakistani Taliban, his bomb failed to explode. Unrepentant to the end, the thirty-one-year-old was sentenced to life in prison.
There is Najibullah Zazi. Just three months earlier, the Denver airport shuttle bus driver, who was born in Afghanistan and raised in Pakistan and the United States, pleaded guilty to an al Qaeda plot to blow up the New York City subway system. He was trained overseas by Osama bin Laden’s network.
And there is Major Nidal Hasan. The Army psychiatrist allegedly shot to death thirteen at Fort Hood in Texas, including twelve soldiers, one of them pregnant. Shortly after 1330 on November 5, 2009, Hasan walked into the Readiness Center, where soldiers get medical checks before and after deployments. According to eyewitness accounts, Hasan opened fire as he shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is great.” It took the Obama administration nine weeks to publicly acknowledge the Fort Hood massacre as an act of terrorism.
There are cases, like that of Anthony Joseph Tracy, a thirty five-year-old Virginia man, that do not make national headlines. Described by his court-appointed attorney as a father and a husband, Tracy was arrested for allegedly smuggling 272 Somalis into the United States. Some may have terrorist ties to an al Qaeda affiliate known as al-Shabaab that is based in East Africa. Tracy was held without bond because federal prosecutors said he was a public threat and a flight risk. He was later convicted on human-trafficking charges and sentenced to three years’ probation and time served.
The list continues: Omar Hammami in Alabama, Daniel Boyd in North Carolina, Carlos Bledsoe in Arkansas, David Headley and Michael Finton in Illinois, Hosam Smadi in Texas, Betim Kaziu in New York, Tarek Mehanna in Massachusetts.
Analysts may disagree over whether these men truly qualify as al Qaeda members or simply al Qaeda wannabes inspired by the network’s message. Although some may be innocent, the number and origin of those charged suggest a pattern. After 9/11, al Qaeda’s top-down structure, much like a Fortune 500 company, splintered and morphed. With the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda reconstituted in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Recruits still traveled to the camps to get hands-on experience in bomb making and explosives. But by 2006, there had been a perceptible shift.
As CIA director Leon Panetta warned Congress in February 2010, al Qaeda’s tactics were evolving. The new recruits were in their twenties, with clean backgrounds. They were hard to detect. Many no longer made the obligatory pilgrimage to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training. Instead, they traveled to Yemen or Somalia. Some were radicalized right here in America.
In a growing number of cases, al Qaeda’s followers are just like us. They are educated here, sometimes born here. The radicalization process is compressed. An offbeat loner can reach out and become a dedicated killer in a matter of months.
In the late 1990s, when I was a foreign correspondent based in London, I talked, over warm beers in a pub, with a former weapons inspector in Iraq. He gave me a piece of advice that still rings true today: “Catherine,” he said, “terrorism is like water. It takes the path of least resistance. You move one way and it moves another. It is a thinking enemy.”
Al Qaeda and its attack on our country continue to shape my life and career. To my knowledge, I am the only network TV correspondent to cover 9/11 in New York, to report on the war on terror from Washington, D.C., for nearly a decade, and to follow the narrative of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators to a military court at Guantánamo Bay.
I live in a military family, so my perspective is different from most correspondents’. I am not sitting on the sidelines reporting the story. I am feeling the impact. In 2009, my husband, an Air Force major and West Point graduate, was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban. For nine months, I was a single parent with two children under five. Phone calls late at night made me nervous. When I investigate the future of al Qaeda, it’s personal. I need to know what my family and our nation are in for. What I see, through my reporting, is a growing body of evidence that al Qaeda’s American recruits are already here.
Excerpted from The Next Wave by Catherine Herridge. Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Herridge. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.