- - Friday, March 30, 2012

By Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, $27.99, 368 pages

”The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” by veteran investigative reporters Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer, is a gripping account of how KSM, one of al Qaeda’s most prominent terrorist “entrepreneurs,” played such a crucial role in one of the deadliest terrorist operations in history. It is also a dramatic account of how the decade-long persistence and hard work of FBI and CIA investigators eventually succeeded in tracking and bringing KSM and his associates to justice, although, as described in great detail by the authors, it took a painstakingly long time in their global pursuit to finally identify him, pinpoint his location and roll up much of his network.

Interestingly, even though KSM had been involved in terrorist attacks against the United States (beginning with the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 by his nephew, Ramzi Yousef and his associates) he was little known to U.S. authorities. His prominence grew once he hooked up with Yousef, who had managed to escape to Manila, to plot a series of spectacular attacks. These included plans to assassinate the Pope John Paul II and President Clinton during their visits to the Philippines, and, in what became known as the Bojinka Operation, to blow up a dozen American-flagged jumbo airliners in flight eastward over the Pacific.

Fortunately, their plans were scuttled in January 1995 by Yousef’s carelessness, which eventually led to his arrest in Pakistan. KSM, however, managed to escape, which began the manhunt to apprehend him, although his significance wasn’t fully known to U.S. counterterrorism agencies.

The Sept. 11 plot was KSM’s most spectacular terrorist operation. He personally pitched it to Osama bin Laden, who liked its basic premise of using airliners as weapons against iconic American targets. KSM served as bin Laden’s “independent contractor,” having refused to formally join al Qaeda. Bin Laden approved the plan, provided the necessary funding to execute it and appointed KSM as its operational manager.

KSM was involved in numerous other terrorist operations, including one, in January 2002, when, on behalf of al Qaeda, he insinuated himself into the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, an operation that was carried out by another jihadi group, by paying $50,000 to take possession of the hostage. As the authors write, he “quickly and with frightening efficiency” slit Pearl’s throat with the camera running for maximum propaganda impact.

Also noteworthy is the authors’ dramatic account of how U.S. counterterrorism agents eventually succeeded in “linking the dots.” Greatly helped by the cooperation of an al Qaeda informer and with the assistance of Pakistani intelligence and security forces, they finally apprehended KSM as he was sleeping at the residence of his associates in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Although the book is a compelling read, one wishes the authors were more attentive to tying up loose ends. For example, they extensively discuss the interactions Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a prominent al Qaeda financier from Saudi Arabia, had with KSM and Ramzi Yousef in the Philippines and elsewhere beginning in the mid-1990s - including his arrest and later release in Jordan in 1997 when a witness against him “recanted” - but then Khalifa falls off the radar, leaving the reader to ponder his fate. It turns out he was killed in late January 2007 in Madagascar, while tending to a gemstone mine he had owned on the island.

Moreover, the authors allude to Aafia Siddiqui, an American-educated Pakistani cognitive neuroscientist who was involved after 9/11 with KSM and a suspect in Baltimore (who was later arrested), but Siddiqui also falls off the book’s radar, with no discussion of how she came to be arrested in Pakistan in July 2008 and subsequently extradited to the United States to face trial and lifelong imprisonment on terrorism-related charges.

Finally, in the book’s conclusion, the authors dismiss Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, as “more of a propagandist than an operational force,” when in fact he may have always played an important tactical function in al Qaeda, a role that should not be underestimated.

Who is al Qaeda’s current KSM-like terrorist entrepreneur? According to the authors, it is one of KSM’s handpicked proteges, Adnan el-Shukrijumah. Like KSM, el-Shukrijumah has an engineering background, was born in the Middle East, lived and studied in America, is a fanatic jihadi and is currently masterminding many of its attacks against America and Europe from his hideouts in Pakistan. Surely, somewhere, an American task force is currently employing all the sophisticated tools necessary to hunt him and his associates, just as the one that eventually succeeded in catching KSM - so vividly portrayed in this important book.

• Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at a Virginia Tech center in Arlington.

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