On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the principal planner of the September 11 attacks, was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. U.S. interrogators quickly went about the business of getting him to talk, and for good reasons. KSM's operatives were already here, inside America, planning attacks.
Shortly after KSM was detained, an Ohio-based truck driver named Iyman Faris was arrested by the FBI. Faris had reportedly been under suspicion beforehand, but U.S. authorities suddenly determined that they had to arrest him. It turned out that Faris, an al Qaeda-trained sleeper agent, had been dispatched to the United States by KSM to plot attacks on landmarks in the New York area, including the Brooklyn Bridge.
Then, in late March, a young Pakistani man named Uzair Paracha was arrested. He had been working out of an office in Manhattan's Garment District for a company owned by his father, Saifullah Paracha. KSM wanted Uzair to facilitate the entry of al Qaeda operatives and use the Parachas' import-export business to smuggle explosives into the United States.
Until this past week, it was not clear how U.S. authorities pieced together the details of this plotting so soon after KSM was captured. But the inspector general's report on the CIA's detainee interrogation program and two other CIA analytical papers--all three of which were released on August 24--fill in the blanks. It is clear now, if it wasn't before, that the CIA's questioning of KSM saved numerous lives, both here and abroad. The inspector general found that KSM "provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists including Saifullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, businessmen whom [KSM] planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States." His "information also led to the investigation and prosecution of Iyman Faris." KSM would become the "most prolific" detainee in the CIA's custody, giving up fellow terrorists and the details of plots around the globe.
The mainstream media and the left are heavily invested in the notion that the CIA's enhanced interrogation program was not only immoral and illegal, but also of dubious efficacy. It has long been assumed that the harshest interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, were at best poor interrogation tradecraft. The inspector general's report, which was written as an indictment of these practices, not as a defense, challenges that received wisdom.
In particular, the inspector general found that KSM was "an accomplished resistor" who "provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard," and much of his information was "outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete." KSM did talk about al Qaeda's desire to strike Heathrow Airport in London. But, as the CIA noted, KSM had good reason to believe that the Heathrow plot had already been compromised.
In September 2002, KSM's co-conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh, had been arrested in Pakistan. Binalshibh was the point man for the Heathrow plot, just as he was for the September 11 operation. Press accounts written shortly after Binalshibh's capture, and prior to KSM's, noted that Binalshibh was cooperating with authorities and had told them about al Qaeda's desire to hijack a plane to use in an attack on Heathrow. So KSM would have thought he was not giving up much, if anything, by discussing the Heathrow plot. Even so, the CIA found that KSM was concealing certain aspects of the Heathrow plot from his interrogators.
Soon, however, KSM became the CIA's most-important source of information. He provided details of al Qaeda's history, including aborted or stalled plots, and important context for understanding of how the terror network operated. The agency filled in many of the gaps in its knowledge in this regard. But Langley's men were primarily interested in stopping the next attack and saving lives, and in that regard the interrogations were an unequivocal success.
In its July 13, 2004, analysis titled "Khalid Shaykh Muhammad: Preeminent Source on Al-Qa'ida," the CIA concluded (emphasis added):
It will take years to determine definitively all the plots in which KSM was involved and of which he was aware, but our extensive debriefings of various KSM lieutenants since early 2003 suggest that he has divulged at least the broad outlines of his network's most significant plots against the United States and elsewhere in his role as al Qaeda's chief of operations outside of Afghanistan.
The Parachas and Faris were not the only terrorists KSM gave up. Majid Khan was arrested just a few days after KSM in Pakistan. During questioning, KSM said that Khan had given $50,000 to the associates of an al Qaeda operative named Hambali in Southeast Asia. Khan was questioned about KSM's admission and revealed that he had given the money to a man named Zubair. Khan described Zubair's physical appearance and gave interrogators his contact number. "Based on that information," the CIA's analysts noted, "Zubair was captured in June 2003."
Zubair then gave his interrogators information about another Hambali associate named Lillie. Both Lillie and Zubair were at one point slated to take part in a suicide hijacking attack on America's West Coast. Lillie was captured and then, in turn, provided information that led to the arrest of Hambali in August 2003. Within a few short months, KSM's admission led to an entire network of al Qaeda operatives being arrested--the story was laid out in detail by the CIA in a 2005 report titled "Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al Qaeda." The importance of Hambali's arrest cannot be overstated. He was the chief of Jemaah Islamiyah, an al Qaeda affiliate that was at the heart of the terror network's plotting against the United States. He was also the mastermind of the October 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people and wounded 240 more, as well as several other lethal attacks.
After Hambali was arrested, KSM identified Hambali's brother, 'Abd al-Hadi (aka "Gun Gun Rusman Gunawan"), as his likely successor. During debriefings, Hambali "unwittingly" gave up information that let authorities pinpoint his brother's whereabouts. Gun Gun was arrested in short order, and, in September 2003, Gun Gun told authorities that his brother, Hambali, had dispatched a cell of operatives to Karachi for further training. Fourteen of the cell's members were quickly located and arrested. According to the CIA's -analysis, Hambali told authorities that he "was grooming members of the cell for U.S. operations--at the behest of KSM--probably as part of KSM's plot to fly hijacked planes into the tallest building on the US West Coast."
That's not all that is detailed in the CIA reports. Several months prior to KSM's capture, Malaysian authorities arrested an al Qaeda agent named Yazid Sufaat. At the time, authorities did not know the full scope of Sufaat's role in al Qaeda. According to the CIA, however, KSM wrongly deduced that his adversaries already knew that Sufaat was al Qaeda's chief anthrax scientist and unwittingly divulged details about al Qaeda's anthrax program, including that there were three individuals responsible for running it. When confronted with this intelligence, Sufaat gave authorities "fragmentary" information about his two associates, "[b]ut it was ultimately the information provided by KSM that led to the capture of Yazid's two principal assistants in the anthrax program," the CIA concluded.
With the release of the inspector general's report and other supporting documents, the American media have seized upon every hint of rough treatment. That KSM was subjected to "183 applications of the waterboard in March 2003," for example, has been repeated over and over again. (The number of applications refers to the number of times water was actually poured on KSM's face.) The fact that KSM gave up intelligence that led to the arrests of al Qaeda operatives that same month, while they were plotting attacks on American soil, has received far less attention. That KSM's interrogations led to the arrest of more than a dozen other al Qaeda operatives slated to take part in future attacks within just a few short months of his capture has also received scant notice.
The media and the left would have us focus only on the waterboarding. But the declassified documents tell a story that is hard to square with the notion that waterboarding is ineffective. Before being waterboarded, KSM offered up little. Afterwards, he became the CIA's "preeminent source" on al Qaeda. Just what made him talk?
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.