The Hunt for KSM
Local journalist Terry McDermott tells the inside story of the manhunt for 9/11’s mastermind
In 2002, journalist Terry McDermott was exploring the underworld of Karachi, Pakistan, a bustling city with a population of nearly 20 million. He was guided by a Pakistani intelligence agent who asked to be called George.
McDermott was searching for the parents of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, whose real name is Abdul Basit Abdul Karim. Basit was the terrorist responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Six people died in that attack, which involved a homemade bomb in a rental truck in the Center’s underground parking garage that managed to shake the towers but not bring them down.
After Basit was caught in 1995, he was flown to New York. As his helicopter approached the twin towers, an FBI agent removed Basit’s blindfold and said, “They’re still standing.” Basit replied, “They wouldn’t be if I had had more money.”
Basit’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had helped fund that initial attack on the WTC, which had cost only a few thousand dollars. By 2001, Mohammed conceived of and obtained funding – a quarter million dollars from Osama Bin Laden – for the attack that would bring the twin towers down.
And so less than a year after 9/11, as bombs were dropping in nearby Afghanistan and the entire region pulsed with violence, McDermott found himself approaching a densely populated Karachi neighborhood in a car with George, looking for answers that almost nobody wanted to provide: who were these men, and why had they done what they had done?
Hundreds of locals had gathered. McDermott had an address in his hand.
“I say, ‘You got to stop here, I’ve got to knock on door,’” McDermott recalled. “He says, ‘I’m not stopping here with you, you crazy?’ I said, ‘Whether or not you’re stopping, I’m getting out.’”
McDermott hopped out of the moving car and was immediately besieged by the crowd. “They kind of picked me up and were carrying me away. I’m thinking, ‘Ah, fuck, George was right,’” he recalled, laughing.
Next thing he knew, George jumped out of the car and fired his weapon, silencing the crowd. “Then he just walks in grabs me and takes me back to the car,” McDermott recalled.
“You one crazy motherfucker, Mr. Terry,” George would later say.
McDermott’s quests to find the stories of the hijackers and plotters behind the 9/11 attacks led him on four extensive tours throughout the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe in the past decade – trips that led him to do a lot of stupid, dangerous things. “You go places you shouldn’t go, get in cars with people you shouldn’t, go in rooms you shouldn’t go in, cross borders you shouldn’t cross, lots of stupid things.”
The reporting culminated in a historical, thrilling account of the hunt for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which hit bookshelves last month. “The Hunt for KSM,” co-written by Josh Meyer, documents the chase and capture of the 9/11 mastermind, referred to in intelligence circles as KSM. The story is largely told through the lens of two counterterrorism agents, Batman-and-Robin-like duo Frank Pellegrino and Matt Besheer, who tracked Mohammed for years throughout the Middle East and Asia against the wishes of their superiors, many who thought Mohammed was only a minor player, almost all who had failed to recognize the genuine danger of the emerging Islamic fundamentalist movement and the jihad that had been declared on America.
The book provides a startlingly intimate look inside the workings of the FBI and the CIA, revealing the intelligence failures that prevented Mohammed from being captured sooner and the tensions between the two agencies that contributed to these failures. While the FBI looks for evidence to solve past crimes, the CIA looks for intelligence to predict future ones. “They’re standing right next to each other and looking in opposite directions,” McDermott said.
The FBI came close to catching Mohammed in 1996 in Doha, Qatar. Pellegrino, an FBI agent, and Besheer, a Port Authority cop, had met while working on the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the aftermath of the 1993 WTC bombing. They were an unlikely pair. Pellegrino was an unruly but brilliant agent, possessing a law degree, a CPA, and an at times, a belligerent stubborn streak that made him an unswervingly effective investigator. Besheer was his opposite in many ways, a fastidious, by-the-book police officer who was open-hearted and amiable. What they shared was an unshakeable belief that the 1993 attack could and likely would be repeated, and a resolve to do everything possible to capture every last man involved in the WTC bombing.
KSM, as McDermott writes, was like a ghost. He repeatedly disappeared just when investigators began to encircle. While other investigators were more content to let him go – outside the FBI, he was regarded more as nuisance than a threat – Pellegrino and “Bash” were relentless in their pursuit, finally tracking him to Doha. They knew where he was living, and Pellegrino actually flew to Qatar with the intention of bringing KSM in. They were within hours of his capture, but the Qatari government was reluctant in its cooperation. Pellegrino was waiting impatiently at the American embassy when the ambassador who’d been negotiating KSM’s arrest came back with the news the Qataris – who were supposed to be monitoring KSM – had “lost” the terrorist. One of the officials in the room asked how someone could be “lost” in such a small country.
“Pellegrino was less tactful,” McDermott and Meyer write. “Looking at the ambassador, he said, ‘You motherfucker…’ Almost as an afterthought, he threw in, ‘Sir.’”
Had Mohammed been captured, McDermott is certain that 9/11 wouldn’t have happened. “There’s no question about that,” he said. “It was his idea, from beginning to end.”
In later years, the CIA had information about Mohammed’s whereabouts that was never passed on to the FBI. “The American intelligence community remains caught up in bureaucratic warfare and remains today incapable of working together…of sharing insights and information…even when all involved share the same goal,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on “The Hunt for KSM.”
On Friday at 7 p.m., McDermott will be speaking at Pages Bookstore in Manhattan Beach. Mohammed will be tried in Guantanamo Bay – his arraignment is set for May 5, nine years after his capture. McDermott will cover the trial for the Newsweek Daily Beast Company.
As exciting as they seem, McDermott’s escapades took their toll. “Even the successes are kind of dark,” he said. “Cumulatively, it’s really depressing. You dream about it, you think about it constantly. It’s kind of a dark subject matter to be sunk into for a prolonged period. But there was never a question of stopping. That never occurred to me.”
A decade begins
As a projects reporter for the Los Angeles Times earlier in 2001, McDermott was preparing to profile a young Christian fundamentalist. At that point, he felt they’d been misunderstood.
“I always thought conservative Christians got a bad break in the media. When they said something was bad or wrong or evil, from their perspective it is, if they think contemporary culture is corrupt, to them, from that perspective, it probably it is,” he said, adding that he wanted to write an empathetic portrait of a young conservative Christian. “A reporter’s real job, apart from the basic stuff, gathering information, is to empathize. You can’t write very knowingly about someone unless you put yourself in that person’s shoes,” he said.
“Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly I’m dealing with other fundamentalists. In a lot of ways, it’s the same set of beliefs, the same underlying views, that the world’s a corrupt venal place.”
McDermott was listening to the radio while driving his daughter to school on the morning of September 11, 2001. After dropping her off, he rushed home, packed his bags and headed to the Times office downtown.
“I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew it was really bad and that I’d somehow be involved in covering it,” he said.
Soon after, he was assigned to profile Mohamed Atta, one of the 19 hijackers, who was originally thought to be the mastermind behind the plot. What about him and the way he viewed the world put him on that plane that morning? “My assignment was to go wherever I needed to go, and stay as long as I needed to stay,” he said. “Imagine that today, in this financial environment.”
He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars while reporting abroad. At one point, he even lost $10,000 in cash. “A weird expense report,” McDermott wryly noted.
“The logistics of doing this kind of reporting are not usual,” he said. “You’re having to hire drivers, translators, security sometimes. And nobody takes credit cards so you’re lugging cash all over the place,” he said.
One of McDermott’s trips to Karachi fell just a week after American journalist Daniel Pearl was killed. KSM has since claimed responsibility for the murder, later boasting to investigators that he’d personally beheaded Pearl “with my blessed right hand.” Upon arriving, McDermott vowed to be conservative in his reporting to avoid Pearl’s fate. “My first week in Karachi, I followed the rules religiously and of course, got nothing. I think, literally nothing,” he said.
Soon after, he visited the ancient city of Peshawar, where he had a great stretch of reporting. “Then I go back to Karachi thinking I own the place, and of course break every rule, do every stupid thing Pearl did, and was lucky enough that nothing happened,” he said. “But it was just luck, it wasn’t because he was green and I knew what I was doing. It’s the same thing – it’s vanity. You want the story.”
And he got it.
The Times ran “A Perfect Soldier,” McDermott’s profile of Atta, in the paper in 2002, launching a decade of McDermott’s reporting on the subject, including his first book, “Perfect Soldiers,” on the 9/11 hijackers.
“We’ll never know it all, but Terry McDermott comes as close as anyone has – and perhaps ever will – to explaining how nineteen zealots came to the place they did,” wrote the New Yorker’s Hersch of that book. “It’s all in the details, and they are all here. This is journalism at its best.”
On the ground
Finding sources and collecting information was often like shooting a movie or television show, McDermott said. “It’s endless takes, over and over. It’s really boring to watch when you think about what ends up on screen,” he said. “You don’t know any day if you’re going to get anything, and a lot of days you go backwards, you lose stuff that turns out not to be true.”
For years, McDermott kept a Bahrain phone number in his wallet that purportedly belonged to Mohammed’s older brother, Zahed. All attempts to reach Zahed had failed – in 2004, the person who answered the call hung up, and in later years, the calls simply wouldn’t connect.
In 2009, he traveled to Bahrain, determined to find Zahed. Minutes after arriving, he stopped at an airport phone booth to buy a local SIM card and asked the booth attendant to look up the old number. Sure enough, the number had been registered under Zahed Sheikh Mohammed. “I said, “You wouldn’t happen to have an address for that number?’” McDermott recalled. The attendant did.
“All the years I tried to find this guy and I couldn’t, five minutes after I got off the airplane, I had his name, phone number and address,” McDermott said, with a laugh.
The address directed him to a two-story, stucco house with a backyard filled with bicycles, balls and toys. McDermott made numerous attempts – through house visits and phone calls to Zahed’s home and work – to persuade Zahed to talk, to no avail. “He threatened to sue me for invasion of privacy. I said, ‘Are you kidding? Your brother’s a mass murderer and you’re going to sue me for invasion of privacy?’” he recalled, chuckling. “In the end, all I got was him screaming at me.”
With Mohammed’s other relatives, McDermott was more successful. His ‘fixer’ – a local journalist McDermott hired to help him navigate the city and translate interviews – set up a meeting with KSM’s relatives in Lyari, a Baluch colony near Karachi that was so dangerous, police wouldn’t even venture there.
McDermott and his fixer were asked to meet an escort at around 10 p.m. During the bumpy car ride on uneven, dim, dusty roads – “it was like riding a rollercoaster” – McDermott kept his head ducked so pedestrians wouldn’t see him. Out of the car window, he saw men on the street corners with rifles and machine guns. “I’m going, ‘I thought the cops didn’t come here, what is this?’ (My fixer) says, ‘They’re not cops.’”
The meeting was set up at night so locals would never know Mohammed’s family members agreed to share their stories. “It was a really productive meeting, got lots of information,” McDermott said, adding that the meeting lasted a few hours.
Upon leaving, McDermott recalled the escort saying, “Your car is still here, I’m shocked.” The escort expected that it’d get stolen and had been fully prepared to drive the reporters back home.
McDermott was often led on wild goose chases throughout the Middle East and Europe to find sources.
His fixer in Germany (he hired different fixers in different countries) once asked him why he bothered to continue reporting when he was just doing the same thing every day with little returns. “I said, ‘If you got a better idea, let me know. But I don’t know any other way to get information than to find people and persuade them to talk,” he said. “Weeks, months later, we start getting stuff. The way it works is once you start getting a little, you pry it open. If you’re lucky, eventually it’s just a deluge. That’s what we had at that point: information that nobody’s gotten.
He asked me, ‘Well how come we’re getting this and nobody else is?’ I go, ‘Look around. Do you see anybody else? They’ve all gone home. We’re still here, that’s the only reason. We stayed.’”
Stories we can no longer afford
Staying when everyone else has gone home is a reporting tactic newspapers can no longer afford to do. “Nobody else will ever do this kind of reporting. It’s too expensive. It’s hard, but lots of people are willing to do hard stuff,” he said, adding that the Times easily spent more than a million dollars on covering 9/11. “They just don’t have the money now.”
Now, he said, in order to be sent abroad for an extended period of time to cover a story, reporters must know what the story is. “When somebody asks me what the story was, whenever I was doing it, I’d say, ‘Well if I knew that, there would be no point in doing the story. It’s to find out,’” he said. “If you’re not surprising yourself, you’re not doing your job right.”
When McDermott profiled Mohammed for the New Yorker in 2010, his travel budget was $10,000, which would’ve been considered a mere rounding error in previous years. “Reporting isn’t predictable. You have to go places, knock on doors, track people down. You never know how long it’s going to last or if it’s going to be successful, and the only way to get any measure of success is to keep at it. Well, if you got a closed budget, that’s impossible.”
‘A meanness in this world’
In 1992, Ramzi Yousef, or Abdul Basit Abdul Karim, arrived in New York City and reconnected with his childhood friend, Abdul Hakim Murad, who was trying to get licensed as a commercial pilot in the United States. Basit told Murad he wanted to attack Israel, but since Israel was a tough target, he decided to attack Jews in the United States instead.
McDermott and Meyer write: “Murad agreed to think about potential targets and, while Basit scouted Brooklyn for Jews, gave it some thought. Eventually, Murad told Basit that the World Trade Center would make an inviting target. New York had a lot of Jews, he knew, and the Twin Towers were bound to be a workplace for many of them.”
KSM, Basit’s uncle, ended up contributing $660 to the 1993 bombing. The subsequent 9/11 attacks were likely a continuation of this plot, a quest to finish what they’d started. “He didn’t do it because it was part of some grand scheme, he did it because it was an idea he had,” McDermott said, on KSM and 9/11.
McDermott drew parallels between Mohammed and Basit’s personalities. “They’re not these dark distant figures hidden in caves,” he said. “They’re charismatic, charming, they’re very modern figures. They’re networkers. You could see KSM running a hedge fund.”
After 9/11, much of the Arab world blamed Israel for the attacks. One fixer McDermott hired in Egypt – a westernized ophthalmology resident and unobserving Muslim who aspired to open laser eye surgery centers in the U.S. – would ask him repeatedly why no Jews died in 9/11. “I said, ‘You know better. Hundreds of Jews got killed, hundreds of Muslims got killed. It’s just a complete bullshit story. How can you possible think that?’ He says, ‘Well, this couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the Mossad. The Mossad had to do this, the Arabs couldn’t do this.’”
Newspapers in the region would run stories claiming this as fact, McDermott said. “This idea that Mossad did 9/11, and Jews stayed home, that profoundly depressed me forever.”
It’s unlikely Mohammed feels remorse for his actions, McDermott said. He recalled his favorite Bruce Springsteen album, “Nebraska,” which contains songs about criminals. One verse from the song, “Nebraska,” particularly resonated with him: “They wanted to know why I did what I did/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
“I don’t think it’s anything more complicated than that. There’s some meanness, something loose in the human psyche,” he explained. “If you get enough of those psyches, what are we at six billion now? You’re bound to have a pretty good number of them that are warped beyond belief.”
Terry McDermott will read from “The Hunt for KSM” at Pages bookstore (904 Manhattan Ave.) in Manhattan Beach Friday night at 7 p.m. See tmcdermott.com for more information on the author.