"The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed" by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer (Little, Brown, $27.99) describes itself as the "definitive account of the decade-long pursuit and capture of the terrorist mastermind of 9/11." Drawing on unprecedented access to hundreds of sources, and investigative reporting across different continents, it provides a unique insight into the worlds of counter terrorism and espionage. In this excerpt, we learn about how KSM was finally captured - and the real story behind his famous photo.
Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Spring 2003
KSM was far more careful than most of his comrades about operational security. He seldom risked exposing himself. Others wired money on his behalf. He used cutouts for critical communications. Others sent and received e‑mails for him. He seldom wrote anything down, believing that important information was better delivered face‑to‑face. When he did write, the language was allusive. Other operatives succumbed to the allure of the quick and easy sat-phone call. Just one call, just this one time. Then they were targeted, caught, and taken off the field of battle.
One group of Arab fighters had been captured on the run because they kept going outside the house they were hiding in to smoke cigarettes. They couldn’t help themselves. They wanted smoke breaks and took them, often outside.
Neighbors eventually became suspicious, a team was dispatched, and they were taken away. KSM was irate. He lost not just the fighters but their safe house and several others, as well as the man who arranged them.
As time went on and more and more of his associates were captured, KSM relied even less on modern communications. “These guys were lying low. They were not using electronics. They were not being detected by electronic eavesdropping,” an ISI officer said. KSM instead sent trusted personal couriers. Others could cast their fates into the ether, where electronic detectives roamed. He stayed down on the ground, in the very human muck that was Pakistan. So in the end it was almost inevitable that it was a human who would betray him.
For more than a year, the CIA had been cultivating an asset who had contacted the agency out of the blue. The man was a longtime acquaintance of KSM’s. Mohammed’s family thought they might have met as far back as the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. He was from Iranian Baluchistan, as was KSM’s family. They might have been distantly related, perhaps not, but were fellow Baluch—an extremely strong tie—in any case.
The agency was patient in cultivating the walk-in, whom we’ll refer to here as Baluchi. He spoke Dari, a dialect of Farsi, the principal language of Iran. The CIA had very few Farsi speakers accomplished enough to communicate with Baluchi. His initial handler was an Iranian American agent who was posted elsewhere overseas and flew to Pakistan whenever Baluchi or he wanted to meet. He was vetted over many months, and had passed polygraph tests. He seemed to be the real thing, maybe even capable of doing what he offered—delivering KSM.
Baluchi was paid regularly and provided useful information from time to time. The money was delivered to him in cash during his meetings with his handler. Fewer than a handful of the agency’s burgeoning Pakistan staff were allowed to know the man’s identity, or his purpose. The case was being run directly out of Langley under what were referred to as “restricted handling” rules, which mainly meant limited exposure on a strict need-to-know basis.