For more than six years, U.S. Officials have wanted to nab Khalid Shaikh Mohammed for his involvement in a foiled plot to bomb airliners as they crossed the Pacific. Now they want to talk to him about a plan that worked. Mohammed, 37, who was born in Kuwait, is believed to have been a key player in the Sept. 11 attacks. "He was involved in every aspect--concocting the scheme, training, financing," says a U.S. official. Mohammed has been fingered by Abu Zubaydah, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden now in U.S. custody at a secret location, and by some al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Officials are still not sure of Mohammed's precise role in the hijackings--"Calling him the mastermind goes further than we would go," says one. But the gumshoes would love to get their hands on him.
Mohammed has long been close to Ramzi Yousef, a Pakistani now serving life plus 240 years for directing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Some sources believe that Mohammed, whose family is from Pakistan, is an uncle of Yousef, though in the Arab world uncle can be a flexible term. Roland Jacquard, a French expert on Islamic terrorism, says Mohammed first came to the attention of American investigators as they searched for Yousef after the 1993 bombing. A man named Khaled al-Shaikh Mohammad attended Chowan College in North Carolina in 1984, but the FBI isn't certain he is the man they want. In 1995 Mohammed was in Manila, where Yousef planned the so-called Bojinka (Serbo-Croat for explosion) plot to blow up airliners as they flew from Asia to the U.S. The scheme was uncovered when a fire broke out in an apartment doubling as a bomb factory. Yousef escaped, only to be captured in Pakistan a month later, but documents and computers left in the apartment linked Mohammed to Bojinka, and he was indicted as a co-conspirator. In 1996 he evaded a U.S. plan to pick him up in the gulf state of Qatar, possibly because he was tipped off by a Qatari government official.
Mohammed, says Jacquard, is a graduate of the Abu Khabab terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, which stressed "special operations"--such as attacks with chemical and biological weapons. Reports last week suggested that Mohammed provides the missing link between the World Trade Center attacks of Yousef and bin Laden.
In fact, Yousef and bin Laden have been linked for years. In a 1998 interview with ABC News, bin Laden spoke warmly of both Yousef and Wali Khan Amin Shah, another convicted member of the Bojinka plot. Yousef and bin Laden moved in the same circles during the fight in Afghanistan against Soviet forces, where Yousef first met Abdurajak Janjalani, the leader of the Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Janjalani, who was killed in 1998, was close to bin Laden, and in the early 1990s Yousef worked with him in the Philippines. Janjalani's operations are believed by Philippine authorities to have been bankrolled by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden's brother-in-law.
If Mohammed really was the brains behind Sept. 11, he might well have been trying to finish Yousef's mission. If so, it would be nice if he soon joined his old friend.
--By Michael Elliott. Reported by Massimo Calabresi and Elaine Shannon/Washington; Bruce Crumley/Paris; and Nelly Sindayen/Manila