Waterboarding involves being bound upside down to an inclined board, head wrapped in cellophane. Fear of drowning is inevitable and kicks in after just a few seconds. Waterboarding was widely practiced by US-advised military dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) customers to waterboarding usually don’t last more then 14 seconds before confessing to anything. Salafi-jihadi mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammad – or KSM, as he is known in the counterinsurgency netherworld – apparently lasted as long as 150 seconds.
In Bush administration eyes, KSM, al-Qaeda’s former chief of operations, is the ultimate “enemy combatant”. KSM had already “confessed” to being the brain of the September 11, 2001, attacks when he was captured in Pakistan in 2002 – in a prosaic police operation, and not by any “shock and awe” from above.
Apparently he spent all these past years determined to “confess” again in the US detention center in sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, claiming, according to words attributed to him by the Pentagon, to be “the operational director for Sheikh Osama bin Laden for the organizing, planning, follow-up and execution of the 9/11 operation.”
KSM’s “confession” comes courtesy of a Pentagon that already gave the world Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, Bagram in Kabul, Guantanamo, “extraordinary rendition” and extreme variations of handsomely paid subcontracted torture. According to Human Rights Watch, waterboarding “really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law”. Those who believe KSM was not tortured in his more than four years in Pakistan and in Guantanamo may also believe in Spider Man. The CIA, just in case, also kidnapped both of his sons – one is seven, the other is nine.
The impeccable timing – although more than four years late – of KSM’s “confession” also happens to knock the scandal surrounding US President George W Bush’s chief law enforcer and torture apologist, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, off the media cycle.
So we have a 42-year-old Pakistani raised in Kuwait whose political sensibility was fine-tuned in the late 1980s during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan (a graphic definition of blowback if there ever was one). By himself, and certainly inspired by the Japanese kamikaze, he came up with the spectacularly deadly concept of turning planes into missiles. And this was after a stellar string of operations – starting with an assassination attempt on former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto (in 1993, by Ramzi Yousef), the first bombing of the New York World Trade Center (also in 1993), a failed assassination attempt on pope John Paul II in the Philippines – a total of 31 actual or aborted operations.
KSM met bin Laden in Jalalabad in Afghanistan in 1996, after the Taliban took power in Kabul. It may have taken him years to convince “the Sheikh” of September 11’s conceptual merits: with al-Qaeda’s No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the job was much easier. As to KSM’s confession of personally beheading former Wall Street reporter Daniel Pearl in early 2002 in Karachi, it does not make sense. The one man responsible for the whole Pearl operation was Lahore playboy turned jihadi turned computer wizard Omar Sheikh, now languishing in jail in Pakistan.
In the long run, it will be enlightening to check whether KSM will be regarded by Americans as a convenient sacrificial lamb – to be dealt with by lethal injection – and whether he will be regarded as a martyr by significant parts of the world of Islam.
KSM has a known reputation for boasting. He may really see himself as a true “revolutionary hero” – in the tradition of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara in South America. That’s what the Pentagon says he thinks. If that is true, he also knows he’s got nothing to lose, so why not forever imprint his reputation in history?
For the Bush administration, KSM could not be more convenient. Were this to be a Hollywood blockbuster (in many aspects it is), the final scene would focus on a dreary “interrogation room” in an aseptic Guantanamo where, under the steely gaze of a Kevin Costner-like investigator, a dejected KSM does a James Cagney – “Look Ma, top of the world!” Roll credits. The Bush administration wraps it all up – mass murder solved, many other murders and loose ends also tied up.
The almost forgotten “dead or alive” hunt for bin Laden is also dead. “The Sheikh” may languish forever in a mythic dusty cave in Waziristan or Kunar. What would he be charged with (in absentia) in the spanking-new US$125 million air-con US courthouse in Guantanamo – accessory to the fact? There remains a slight problem. Super-terrorist KSM may never see the light of day again, but the top jihadis he has taught – probably in the dozens – are lurking in the shadows, ready to inflict blowback to kingdom come.
Hardcore Salafi-jihadis don’t break under torture – in fact their boot camp teaches them to turn an interrogation on itself and tell interrogators exactly what they want to hear. KSM is wily enough to have engineered a last laugh – attributing to himself a catalogue of horrors as a diversionist tactic while globalized Salafi-jihadis, the post-KSM generation, keep slouching toward Baghdad to be born.