Inside the Mission to Catch Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

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How the FBI, CIA, and Pakistani intelligence worked together -- or didn't -- in the global hunt for the mastermind behind September 11, 2001.

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A side street in Karachi AP

KARACHI, Pakistan, Autumn 2002 -- Everything the Americans could rustle up pointed to Karachi. Every source and bit of information said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was operating out of the capital of Pakistan's Wild West. Back at Langley, the CIA's newly formed "KSM targeting team" had assembled a massive file on him that included all the disparate dots that the U.S. government had previously failed to connect. By then, a congressional joint inquiry was already cataloguing those failures. Once the Pakistani security services started looking in earnest, they found the same thing. Almost every Al Qaeda suspect they picked up in the last year had some connection to Mohammed. Many of those arrested had no links to one another, but they all knew Mohammed.

The Americans knew Karachi was a much tougher target than almost anywhere else in Pakistan, perhaps the world. Karachi in the best of times is a difficult city. With its "no-go" zones, rampant organized crime, and seemingly perpetual sectarian wars, it has been a kidnapping and murder capital for years. Much as California localities post warnings on what to do in case of an earthquake, bulletin boards in public buildings in Karachi routinely display advice on what to do in case of a kidnapping.

It is a mark of Karachi's cosmopolitanism that most of its millions of citizens carry on life as if this underworld does not exist. In that regard, it is in many ways no different from any other 21st century metropolis -- ungainly, exciting, raucous, difficult. There are hip clubs with DJs, cool new restaurants with enigmatic names, a burgeoning middle class. Kids ride bikes, markets hawk DVDs and digital cameras, the bright shiny silks of upscale ladies-about-town billow in the breeze. It is Pakistan's most progressive city, former home to its first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and thousands of women go about the city unescorted, unveiled, running errands, going to jobs, lunch dates, and prenatal classes. Graduates of its university engineering programs are prized in technology centers and other outposts of the new world economy.

Still, especially after the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, it seemed a woolly, scary place to do business. Agents routinely felt they needed to run what they called surveillance detection routes, SDRs, when they went to and from their living quarters.

Suddenly, the man who had been nowhere for a decade was everywhere.

Raids, even when they were able to mount them, didn't seem to produce much. Karachi was terribly overbuilt. Much of the construction industry was controlled by the military, and much of the military's money was illicit. It couldn't just sit around; it had to be put to use. It built buildings whether the market existed for them or not. So even a city that was growing an average of 5 percent a year had a perpetually high rate of vacant buildings. It made Karachi an easy place to hide. You could slip in and out of empty places -- a new one every day if you wanted; you could rent them for almost nothing. A series of raids in the spring and summer of 2002 had found a lot of empty flats.

. . .

In August, the FBI caught a break when it questioned a brother-in-law of KSM, Abdul Samad Din Muhammad, who had been arrested and questioned in the United Arab Emirates in November 2001 and extradited to Pakistan in 2002. Muhammad told FBI agents that Aziz Ali was in constant contact with his uncle, KSM. He also said Aziz Ali received a constant stream of Arab visitors from Pakistan at the airport and that Ali had suddenly bolted from the UAE a day or two before the Sept. 11 attacks. He didn't have his belongings together, but insisted on leaving. When Muhammad asked Aziz Ali why he was in such a rush to leave, he didn't get a satisfactory answer. FBI deputy legal attaché Jennifer Keenan, who was working closely on the case, was now certain that the way to get to KSM was through his nephew.

More raids initially yielded nothing, but in early September, the Pakistani police got lucky. Neighbors had pointed out that there was an awful lot of traffic through a house in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighborhood. Police nabbed a man leaving the house on his way to pay utility bills. Agents of the ISI investigated and detained the man, a Saudi native, who said he managed the house. His name was Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani. Rabbani's driver proved to be quite talkative. He said Rabbani and his brother managed several similar guesthouses, all of which had a constant stream of guests. He helpfully gave police the addresses of the houses.

One of the houses was nearby, on Tariq Road. Authorities raided it and found the brother there, along with two other men, two women, and three children. They also found 20 carefully wrapped passports and almost two dozen SEGA game consoles that had been modified for use as detonators for explosives. The passports were for members of Osama bin Laden's family. The police interrogated the children to determine if they were bin Laden's. One of the women was a caretaker, and one child was hers. Two of the children were brothers. The other woman was a nanny to the brothers -- and the man was her companion. The two boys, ages seven and nine, were named Omar and Abdullah. No, they said, their father's name was not bin Laden; it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The women were caretakers and nannies. They couldn't say where Mohammed was, but they knew there were large parties of Arab men at guesthouses in the Defence Housing Authority, a generally upscale part of the city. The intelligence agents also learned that the men staying there were well-armed, and cautious. Rabbani had been instructed to rent the apartment two months earlier and wait, but was given no further details. The men had come one by one over a period of two weeks and had taken precautions to avoid detection. Once inside, they hadn't left for a month, while food, weapons and supplies were brought to them.

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

The ISI retreated for the day. They contacted the Americans and organized for operations the next morning. They moved in overnight with a large assemblage of ISI, local Sindhi police, and Pakistani Army Rangers for backup. The American embassy in Islamabad had gotten a call at about 8:00 a.m. that morning about a possible big fish in Karachi. The new FBI legal attaché, Chuck Riley, dispatched Don Borelli, the WMD expert from Dallas, and another agent on temporary duty from Kansas City, Dave Cudmore. "Grab an overnight bag, head to Karachi, and haul ass," Riley told them. It took until 2:00 p.m. to get there.

When they got to Karachi, the two agents were told to sit tight. The Pakistanis babysat the house through the night.

The immediate neighborhood was just beyond the nicer sections of Defence; it was a commercial-industrial tract full of five- and six-story buildings, most with low-rent light-industry tenants: textile plants, zipper and button factories, and small machine shops. The streets were paved but the buildings were separated by bare dirt; they were shuttered in the front with metal roll-up doors. The streets were empty and dark.

After dawn, they stopped the caretaker coming back from morning prayers. He told them that the entire top floor, the fourth, was filled with Arabs. They'd been there for two months, he said, and overpaid on the rent. The soldiers moved in at sunrise and all hell broke loose. Hundreds of rounds, hours of shooting and grenade throwing, and two dead men later, the authorities secured the building. They searched room by room, and in a storage space under a stairwell they found the man who just weeks before had declared himself the coordinator of the September 11 attacks, Ramzi bin al-Shibh. He and another man held knives to their own throats, threatening to silence themselves before they could ever be made to talk. But Pakistani agents jumped them, and wrestled them down.

They raided the second building as well, with much less incident.

When the dust settled from the massive shootout at the Defence address, Borelli and Cudmore were taken to ISI headquarters in Karachi. They had put on their shalwar kameez, a traditional South Asian dress, before noticing that many of the ISI officers wore Western clothes, some of them jeans.

"We don't need to blend in; you do," the Americans were told.

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Presented by

Terry McDermott & Josh Meyer

Terry McDermott, the author of Perfect Soldiers and 101 Theory Drive, has written for The New Yorker, The Wilson Quarterly, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and others. Josh Meyer is the former chief terrorism reporter for The Los Angeles Times.

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