When 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed emerged at a military commission hearing at Guantánamo Bay last week, smiling and waving to the gallery, millions of Americans collectively wondered: Why isn’t he dead yet?
The answer is: Mohammed tried to plead guilty and proceed straight to execution more than a decade ago. But instead of accepting his plea, the Obama-Biden administration ended his military trial and tried to move his case to a federal criminal court, as part of its catastrophic attempt to shut down Guantánamo Bay.
Almost from the moment they set foot at Gitmo, Mohammed and his four 9/11 co-conspirators openly confessed their crimes and asked that the death penalty be imposed. There was no need for evidence from coercive interrogations to prove Mohammed’s guilt.
At a March 10, 2007, hearing, Mohammed openly admitted what he had done. “I was the Operational Director for Sheikh Usama Bin Laden for the organizing, planning, follow-up, and execution of the 9/11 Operation,” he boasted, adding that he was responsible for the 9/11 operation “from A to Z.”
Mohammed also confessed that “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl,” adding, “For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”
He further admitted, “I was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center Operation” as well as “the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, which was frequented by British and Australian nationals” and “for the Filka Island Operation in Kuwait that killed two American soldiers” and “for the Shoe Bomber Operation to down two American airplanes.”
And he confessed to a series of planned follow-on attacks that were stopped only because of his capture and CIA interrogation. “I was responsible for planning, training, surveying, and financing the New (or Second) Wave attacks against the following skyscrapers after 9/11: a. Library Tower, California; b. Sears Tower, Chicago; c. Plaza Bank, Washington state,” he declared, adding that he has also planned an operation “to destroy Heathrow Airport, the Canary Wharf Building, and Big Ben on British soil.”
In all, Mohammed proudly confessed to 31 planned, executed, attempted or disrupted terrorist attacks, declaring, “I admit and affirm without duress that I was a responsible participant, principal planner, trainer, financier (via the Military Council Treasury), executor and/or a personal participant in” all of these plots.
Then, at his June 2008 arraignment, Mohammed and his co-conspirators offered to plead guilty to these crimes and be executed for them. When asked by the military judge whether he understood that the charges against him could bring the death penalty, Mohammed responded, “I understand very well,” adding that “I wish to be martyred.”
When months went by and nothing happened, Mohammed and the other 9/11 terrorists wrote to the judge to request “an immediate hearing session to announce our confessions.”
At a December 2008 hearing, when the judge asked Mohammed and his co-defendants if they were prepared to enter a guilty plea, the Associated Press reported that “all five said yes, but there was no indication when they would be allowed to do so.”
In January 2009, the Obama administration took office. One of the first acts of the new president was to issue an executive order to close Guantánamo Bay.
Instead of accepting the guilty pleas from Mohammed and the other 9/11 plotters, the administration did the opposite — announcing in November 2009 that the defendants would be moved from Guantánamo to a federal prison and tried in a Manhattan federal courtroom.
The decision elicited an immediate bipartisan backlash. Then-Vice President Joe Biden defended the move, declaring,” We have no doubt that the best, most effective legal way to put this guy behind bars for the longest time ... is in an Article 3 court.”
Sorry, the goal was not to put Mohammed behind bars; the goal was to put him to death. If the Obama-Biden administration had not made the choice to try him in an Article 3 court — which later was reversed by Congress — Mohammed might have been executed long ago. Instead, his case wallowed for all eight years of the Obama administration, plus for four more under Donald Trump.
When he was in CIA custody, Mohammed told his interrogator something prophetic. In the end, he said, al-Qaida will prevail in this struggle because “Americans don’t realize ... we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.”
To our nation’s everlasting shame, he was allowed to live to see his prophecy come true — as the Taliban regime returned to power in Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed orchestrated.
Disgracefully, Joe Biden had a hand in both of those travesties.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.