The man accused of plotting the conspiracy of hijacked passenger planes hitting iconic US locations 20 years ago is in prison awaiting trial. One question that has not yet been answered is: could he have been detained before the attacks?
“He was my guy.”
Frank Pellegrino was sitting in a hotel room in Malaysia when he saw television footage of planes colliding with the Twin Towers. The first thing he thought was, “My God, it must be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”
The target and the ambitions closed with what Pellegrino knew of Mohammed – and only he could know that.
The former FBI special agent spent three decades on Mohammed’s trail. Even so, the alleged 9/11 mentor has yet to be tried. A lawyer for Mohammed told the BBC it could take another 20 years for the case to be completed.
Osama bin Laden, then leader of al-Qaeda, is generally the man most associated with the 9/11 attacks. But the reality is that Mohammed, or “KSM” as he became known, was the “principal architect,” according to the 9/11 Commission that investigated the attacks. He was the man who came up with the idea and brought it to al-Qaeda.
Born in Kuwait, he studied in the US before fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Years before the 9/11 attack, FBI agent Frank Pellegrino was on the jihadist’s trail.
Pellegrino had been assigned by the FBI to investigate the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, eight years before 9/11. It was on this occasion that Mohammed’s name came to the attention of US authorities because he had made a money transfer to one of those involved.
The FBI agent soon realized the scope of Mohammed’s ambition in 1995, when KSM was linked to a conspiracy to blow up several international planes over the Pacific. In the mid-1990s, Pellegrino came close to arresting him, having located him in Qatar.
He and a team went to Oman, from where they planned to cross into Qatar and arrest Mohammed. A plane was ready to bring the suspect back. But there was resistance from US diplomats at the scene.
Pellegrino went to Qatar and told the ambassador and other embassy officials that he had a formal charge against Mohammed for conspiracy involving planes. But he says the diplomats didn’t want to cause trouble in the country.
“I think they thought maybe this would make them uncomfortable,” recalls Pellegrino.
Finally, the ambassador informed Pellegrino that Qatar authorities claimed to have lost Mohammed. “There was anguish, anger and frustration,” he says. “We knew it was a missed opportunity.”
But he acknowledges that as early as the mid-1990s, Mohammed was no longer seen as a high-priority target. Pellegrino couldn’t even list him in the top ten most wanted criminals in the US. “I was told there were already too many terrorists in there.”
Mohammed appears to have been warned of the US interest and fled Qatar to Afghanistan.
In the years that followed, KSM’s name continued to appear, often in the phone books of arrested terror suspects around the world, making it clear that he was well connected. It was during these years that he went to Bin Laden with the idea of training pilots to crash planes into buildings in the US.
And then 9/11 happened. Pellegrino’s suspicions about KSM’s role were substantiated when a key al-Qaeda figure in custody identified him. “Everyone realized that Frank’s guy committed [o atentado]”, remembers Pellegrino. “When they found out he was the man, there was no one more devastated than me.”
In 2003, Mohammed was located and arrested in Pakistan. Pellegrino expected him to be tried as a result of his work over the years. But Mohammed “disappeared”. The CIA took him to an unknown place where “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used.
“I want to know what he knows and I want to know it fast,” said a senior CIA official at the time.
Mohammed has been subjected to a technique called waterboarding at least 183 times, a kind of “almost drowning”, considered torture. He was subjected to rectal rehydration, stressful positions, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and heard that his children would be killed.
He confessed to several conspiracies during this time. But a Senate report later found that much of the intelligence allegedly produced had been invented by the detainee.
After details of the CIA’s detention program were revealed, “high value prisoners” like Mohammed were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. The FBI was finally allowed access to the detainees.
In January 2007, Frank Pellegrino came face to face with the man he had been chasing for so long.
The two sat facing each other.
“I wanted him to know that I was involved in indicting him in the 1990s,” he says, hoping to open up the conversation to elicit information about 9/11.
The former FBI agent declined to reveal the details of what was said, but admitted that “he’s a very engaging guy with a sense of humor, believe it or not.”
KSM has always been seen as “arrogant” in audiences at Guantanamo. Pellegrino says that Mohammed is something of a “Kardashian”, given his desire for attention, but that the prisoner shows no remorse.
“I’m sure he’s happy with what he’s done, but he likes this whole show,” he says.
After six days of talking, Mohammed finally said he couldn’t take it anymore. “And that was it,” recalls Pellegrino.
Subsequent attempts to judge him failed. A plan to hold a trial in New York met with opposition from the public and politicians. “Everyone was screaming, ‘I don’t want this guy in my backyard. Keep him in Guantanamo,'” said Pellegrino, a New Yorker himself.
Then came a military tribunal at Guantanamo. But delays in procedures, compounded by the covid pandemic, which closed the base, made the process lengthy. More hearings are still taking place this week, but the end of the case seems a long way off.
Mohammed’s lawyer believes the latest hearings were scheduled just to show the press that something is happening on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. David Nevin told the BBC that he is still waiting “something on the order of 20 years for a complete resolution of the process”.
The defense attorney has been on the case since it started in 2008. The original plan was to start the trials almost immediately. But they’re not even close to starting yet, he says, noting that a newly appointed judge is “the eighth or ninth judge we’ve had.”
Each judge needs to be familiar with some 35,000 pages of transcripts from previous hearings and thousands of motions in what Nevin describes as “the largest criminal trial in US history.”
And also the most controversial.
This is mainly because the five defendants were all held in secret detention by the CIA and subjected to “advanced interrogation techniques”.
This led to discussions about evidence contaminated by what happened on secret CIA websites.
The US “organized and implemented a clearly defined program to torture these men,” Nevin said. These methods make room for legal remedies against any convictions, and this has dragged on for years.
Nevin didn’t reveal details of what it’s like to represent one of the most notorious defendants in the world. He says that initially his client was “deeply skeptical” about being represented by an American lawyer, so there was a lengthy process for them to get to know each other.
When Mohammed was detained in a top-secret part of the naval base, the lawyers were put in a van with the windows closed and drove around for 45 minutes just to lose them, he says. But now your customer is detained in a normal location.
The legal team is aware of the sensitivities of the families of 9/11 victims, who were flown in to attend court hearings. At meetings, some family members criticize lawyers like Nevin for representing defendants. But others ask questions about how the process works.
“We work very hard not to do anything to exacerbate the pain and suffering they’ve experienced over the years,” said Nevin.
Another reason he believes the court dragged on is because this is a death penalty case and that increases the rigor. “It would have ended a long time ago if the government hadn’t been trying to execute these men.”
Pellegrino has postponed his retirement from the FBI by three years in hopes that the military trial at Guantanamo, in which he hopes to testify, will be concluded. “It would have been nice to see it go by while I still had the badge.”
But the veteran special agent has reached retirement age and has just left the bureau.
After crisscrossing the world looking for clues about Mohammed, he now feels a strong sense of failure, wondering if capturing him in the 1990s could have averted 9/11.
“His name pops into my head every day and it’s not a nice thought,” he says.
“Time helps to heal things. But it is what it is.”