NEW YORK (AP) — Hours before dawn on March 1, 2003, the United States scored its most thrilling victory yet against the plotters of the September 11 attacks — the capture of a disheveled Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, taken by intelligence agents from a hideout in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
The global manhunt for Al-Qaeda’s No. 3 has lasted 18 months. But the US attempt to bring him to justice, in a legal sense, took much, much longer. Critics say it has become one of the biggest failures of the war on terror.
As the 21st anniversary of Sunday’s terror attacks approaches, Mohammed and four other men charged with 9/11-related crimes are still sitting in a US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, with their trials in military court continually postponed.
The latest setback came last month when preliminary hearings scheduled for early fall were cancelled. This delay was just another disappointment for the relatives of the approximately 3,000 victims of the attack. They have long hoped that a trial would bring closure and perhaps resolve unanswered questions.
“Now I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Gordon Haberman, whose 25-year-old daughter Andrea died after a hijacked plane crashed into the World Trade Center one floor above. above his desk.
He traveled four times to Guantanamo from his home in West Bend, Wis., to attend court proceedings in person, only to come away frustrated.
“It’s important to me that America finally finds out the truth about what happened, how it was done,” Haberman said. “Personally, I want this to be judged.”
If convicted at trial, Mohammed faces the death penalty.
Asked about the case, James Connell, lawyer for one of Mohammed’s co-defendants – one accused of transferring money to the 9/11 attackers – confirmed that both sides are “still trying to reach to a pre-trial agreement” which could still avoid a trial and result in shorter but still long sentences.
David Kelley, a former U.S. attorney in New York who co-chaired the Justice Department’s national investigation into the attacks, called the delays and failure to prosecute a “terrible tragedy for the families of the victims.”
He called the attempt to bring Mohammed to trial in a military tribunal, rather than the regular US court system, “a huge failure” that was “as offensive to our Constitution as it is to our rule of law.”
“It’s a huge stain in the history of the country,” he said.
The difficulty in holding a trial for Mohammed and other Guantanamo prisoners is partly rooted in what the United States did with him after his capture in 2003.
Mohammed and his co-defendants were first held in secret prisons overseas. Hungry for information that could lead to the capture of other al-Qaeda figures, CIA agents subjected them to heightened interrogation techniques that amounted to torture, human rights groups say . Mohammed was submerged in water – he was made to feel like he was drowning – 183 times.
A Senate investigation later concluded that the interrogations had not led to any valuable information. But it has sparked endless pretrial litigation over whether FBI reports of their statements can be used against them — a process not subject to the speedy trial rules used in civil courts.
The torture allegations have raised fears that the United States has wasted its chance to have Mohammed tried in a civilian court.
But in 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration decided to give it a try, announcing that Mohammed would be transferred to New York and tried in federal court in Manhattan.
“Failure is not an option,” Obama said.
But New York City balked at the expense of security, and the move never happened. Eventually, it was announced that Mohammed would face a military tribunal. And then more than a dozen years passed.
Kelley said talk of military tribunals two decades ago surprised many in the legal community who had successfully prosecuted terrorism cases in the previous decade. The concept of a tribunal, he said, “came out of nowhere. Nobody knew it was going to happen.
Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was not pro-court and supported federal terrorism prosecutions in Manhattan, he said.
Now, Kelley said, over time it will be much more difficult to prosecute Mohammed in court, let alone a courtroom. “Evidence becomes stale, witness memories fail.”
The passage of time has not dulled the memories of the victims’ families or dampened their interest in witnessing justice.
Eddie Bracken’s sister Lucy Fishman was killed at the mall. The New Yorker opposed Obama’s proposal to move the trial to federal court – Mohammed is charged with “a military act” and should be tried by the military, he said. And if he is somewhat frustrated by the delays, he understands them.
“The whole world is looking at us and saying, ‘What are they doing after all this time?’ “, he said. But he realizes the case is “a process that the world sees, that has to be done under a microscope. … It’s up to the United States to do its due diligence, to make sure it’s done right.
“The wheels of justice are turning. They spin slowly, but they spin. And when the time is right, and it’s said and done, the world will know what happened,” he adds.
While Mohammed lingered in Guantanamo, the US killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a 2011 raid and deputy-turned-successor Ayman al-Zawahri in a drone strike last August.
Guantanamo Bay Military Commission investigators say he plotted the September 11 attacks for three years. They cited a computer hard drive seized during his arrest which they said contained photographs of the 19 hijackers, three letters from Bin Laden and information about some of the hijackers.
Mohammed, during his court hearing, admitted in a written statement that he had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden, was on the council of al-Qaeda and had served as bin Laden’s operational director for organizing, planning, monitoring and executing the 9/11 conspiracy “from A to Z”.
According to the statement, he also took credit for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; an attempt to shoot down American airliners using shoe bombs; the nightclub bombing in Indonesia; and plans for a second wave of attacks after the 2001 attacks on landmarks like the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Building in Manhattan.
He also claimed responsibility for other planned attacks, including assassination attempts on then-President Bill Clinton in 1994 or 1995 and an assassination plot against Pope John Paul II around the same time. , according to the press release.
Mohammed’s nearly two decades in legal limbo differ from the fate of his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people, injured 1,000 others and left a crater in the parking lot under the twin towers.
Yousef is serving life in prison after being found guilty in two separate civil trials. He was also captured in Pakistan in 1995 but was brought to the United States for trial.
At the time, Yousef said his right to kill people was comparable to America’s decision to drop a nuclear bomb in World War II. Mohammed offered a similar justification, saying through an interpreter during proceedings at Guantanamo that killing people was the “language of all war”.
Bracken traveled to Guantanamo in 2012 to attend a hearing for Mohammed and his co-defendants, and would likely return there if a trial took place.
“I don’t know if I want to go back there to bring back all the pain and pain. But if I’m allowed to go, then I guess I will. Yeah. My sister would do that for me.
“She is that kind of woman,” he added. Then he corrected himself: “She was that kind of woman.”
Antlfinger reported from West Bend, Wisconsin. Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington and Tom Hays in New York contributed to this story.