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Why is the 9/11 Mastermind Still Awaiting Trial?

One word: Torture.

The trial date for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his cohorts for their role in the September 11, 2001 attacks, which were responsible for the deaths of 2,976 people, has been finally set.

For January 11, 2021.

Wrap your heads around that for a moment. Kids who were born the year of the worst terror attack on U.S. soil are now applying for colleges and signing up for Selective Service. They’ll be able to vote in the next presidential election.

For those of us who went the through painful process of covering the evolution of the U.S. military tribunal at “Camp Justice” at Guantanamo Bay, the announcement that a date has been “set” means very little. Most observers don’t think it’ll happen, not in January 2021 or ever. Why?


The U.S. military and the CIA took KSM and other high level detainees who later spent time at the infamous GTMO off the battlefield and into “black” interrogation sites that most Americans would rather forget ever existed. They tortured these individuals for information before bringing them to GTMO and then tortured them some more. Anyone who does not believe that has been living in a politically warped state of denial for the last 18 years.

If it hadn’t happened, the U.S. military might have had a lot more than a handful of convictions (out of the hundreds of detainees who have rotated in and out of the prison). Out of the handful of convictions at Camp Justice, most have been overturned in the last several years. The record of this tribunal is pathetic. The only thing truly accomplished here is the U.S. military ecosystem flourishing a short hop from the Cuban mainland. What was supposed to be temporary has been made permanent, like all things in the American military industrial complex.

But back to the torture. The reason why KSM and his four cohorts have not gone to trial yet is because there is a dispute over whether their confessions are admissible because they were gleaned through torture sessions in CIA prisons. By law the any evidence obtained under these conditions is inadmissible. Defense lawyers in this case, as well in the other major case at Camp Justice—the 2000 USS Cole bombing—have been able to hold up the progress of both cases on this basis. If for some reason these men are convicted, and they get the death penalty, their lawyers were use torture to prolong that process too.

We know now that many of the detainees at Guantanamo at its peak were low level Taliban fighters, Al Qaeda lackeys, or worse, they were innocent souls who were at the wrong place at the right time. Many were turned in for money or revenge. Most of those men have long been repatriated. As of 2018, 40 remain.

With the death of Osama bin Laden, KSM remains the highest-level 9/11 suspect alive. He is not only charged with orchestrating the plots that brought down the Twin Towers in New York City and blasting a hole in the Pentagon, but is accused of personally beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. But when he was captured in Pakistan in 2003 he was taken to different black sites for months and subjected to the CIA extreme interrogation techniques that the Bush Administration had approved early in the war. He was reportedly waterboarded 183 times.

Now, nearly 17 years after his arrest, there is still no closure for the victims. Compare that to the tidy conviction of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was tried as the “20th hijacker” on felony conspiracy charges in federal civilian court in 2006. He’s now tucked away at a Supermax prison.

But the hardliners in the Bush Administration balked at trying more 9/11 suspects in civilian courts. They said Americans wouldn’t be safe with suspects so near, that the military tribunals were better equipped to handle these special terrorism cases. I’m sure they thought the optics were better: Who better to put these terrorist-fighters away than stern military justices on an island surrounded by soldiers and barbed wire?

Turns out on each point they were wrong, big time. Leaving out the legal morass and boatload of other administrative issues that have plagued the court, the biggest reason for the logjam is torture. Thanks to their zeal in exercising extreme techniques likely honed from a 60-year-old playbook—like waterboarding, sensory/sleep-deprivation, beatings, electric shocks and more—U.S. authorities still can’t seal the deal. And Americans lose again.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor at The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC




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