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Key 9/11 Planner Is Named

Terror: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a top Bin Laden officer, probably was a mastermind of the attacks, officials say.

June 05, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials believe they have identified a mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks--a mysterious Kuwaiti already wanted for his alleged role in a 1995 plot to bomb a dozen U.S. airliners over the Pacific Ocean, authorities said Tuesday.

"It looks like he's the man, quite honestly," one Bush administration official said of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a key lieutenant to Osama bin Laden. "We believe he is probably the leader of this. We have reason to believe it was his idea to create the plan for the four hijackings and [that he] discussed the plan with ... Bin Laden."

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he had been briefed recently on Mohammed's alleged role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and was told that the information was coming from the interrogations of "various people," including Al Qaeda members in custody.

In particular, captured Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubeida has told his interrogators of Mohammed's role in the plot, according to the Bush administration official and a second U.S. official. Both spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation and the fact that Mohammed is still at large and believed to be hiding somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

A third person, an FBI counterterrorism official closely involved in the investigation, also described Mohammed as "perhaps the most wanted" of Al Qaeda operatives, possibly even more so than Bin Laden and top aide Ayman Al-Zawahiri, because of his direct operational role in various terrorist attacks.

In an interview with The Times two weeks ago, that FBI official would not specifically discuss Mohammed's role in the suicide hijackings but cited him as a key fugitive who figures prominently in the investigation.

Some officials, though, downplayed Mohammed's role. ''He's one of the people believed to be behind it. It may be a stretch to say he's the mastermind,'' said a U.S. intelligence official. ''It's not clear at this point what role he played.''

Mohammed, who is believed to be 36 or 37 years old, was designated one of the Bush administration's 22 most-wanted terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was linked not to Sept. 11, but to the 1995 plot to blow up airliners. Authorities had placed a $25-million bounty on his head.

But in recent weeks, those authorities have come to believe that Mohammed discussed the Sept. 11 plot in detail before the attacks not only with Bin Laden but also with Zubeida, who was an operational commander for Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Authorities say Zubeida put Bin Laden's global vision for a worldwide Islamic state into action by orchestrating a series of terrorist attacks, managing the training camps in Afghanistan and serving as a liaison with terrorist cells around the world. Tuesday's disclosures are also the first indication that Zubeida has been tied directly to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Zubeida, a Palestinian who is believed to be about 31, was captured in a raid in Pakistan in late March. He has been interrogated almost continually since recovering from gunshot wounds suffered when he tried to escape.

The Bush administration official said Zubeida's identification of Mohammed as a key orchestrator of the Sept. 11 attacks occurred over the last two months and that U.S. authorities have been able to corroborate significant elements of his story. The official said such independent corroboration is important because authorities have been highly skeptical of some of the information provided by Zubeida, a hardened terrorist with no obvious reason to help the U.S.

Information from Zubeida has prompted authorities in recent weeks to go public about potential terrorist attacks on U.S. banks, shopping malls and even the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty--even when they could not find any independent corroboration or even a time, date or place for such attacks.

The Bush administration official speculated that Zubeida may have identified Mohammed as a way of taunting U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

"Zubeida is definitely talking. I think he knows that Mohammed is alive and on the loose and that we won't be able to catch him," said the official. "Who knows? It's all pop psychology at this point. [But] I'm very confident that there were discussions with Mohammed and Abu Zubeida over what ultimately became the 9/11 attacks."

Authorities have long believed that Mohammed played a significant role in Al Qaeda, ranking one or two levels below Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda's military commander, in the terror network's hierarchy. They also think he was involved in the 1998 truck bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

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