WASHINGTON — To hear Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed tell it, Osama bin Laden was a meddling boss whose indiscretion and poor judgment threatened to derail the terrorist attacks.
He also saddled Mohammed with at least four would-be hijackers who the ringleader thought were ill-equipped for the job. And he carelessly dropped hints about the imminent attacks, violating Mohammed's cardinal rule against discussing the suicide hijacking plot.
The repeated conflicts between the two Al Qaeda leaders emerged last week during the penalty phase of the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. Jurors heard new details of the plot from the interrogation summaries of several captured Al Qaeda officials, including an extraordinary account of a series of interrogations of Mohammed.
Mohammed described Al Qaeda in a written statement for his U.S. interrogators as an almost mystically efficient corporation that operates in ways Americans would never understand.
The portly Kuwaiti, who had studied engineering in the U.S. and was captured in Pakistan in 2003, told his interrogators that they could learn a lot from Al Qaeda, the organization.
"You must study these matters to know the huge difference between the Western mentality in administration and the Eastern mentality, specifically at Al Qaeda."
The hallmark of the system, he said, was unquestioned control: Everyone up the chain of command did as they were told, didn't ask questions and never bucked authority -- all for the common cause of the enterprise, which in this case was killing as many Americans as possible.
"I know that the materialistic Western mind cannot grasp the idea, and that it is difficult for them to believe," Mohammed wrote. "But in the end," he gloated, "the operation was a success."
Yet Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.
"[Shaikh] Mohammed stated that he was usually compelled to do whatever Bin Laden wanted with respect to operatives for the September 11 operation," the interrogation summary states. "That said, [Shaikh] Mohammed noted that he disobeyed Bin Laden on several occasions by taking operatives assigned to him by Bin Laden and using them how he best saw fit."
His independence from Bin Laden had its limits, however, because it was Al Qaeda's money and operatives that enabled the plot to go forward.
Mohammed succeeded in rejecting three attempts by Bin Laden to accelerate the plot. But he said his boss canceled an entire overseas element of the hijacking scheme that he was orchestrating.
Bin Laden presumably would have his own version of events. But a former FBI agent who closely tracked Al Qaeda said the testy relationship described by Mohammed was consistent with the accounts of other terrorism suspects in custody.
"They couldn't stand each other," the former official said. "They both had huge egos."
The seeds of conflict were planted at the beginning, when Mohammed first presented his idea in 1996 to hijack U.S. planes and fly them into buildings. He specifically suggested "that they send [mujahedin] to study in the flight institutes and use large planes" rather than the smaller military ones that Al Qaeda operatives were trained in flying.
He was turned away, Mohammed said, because Bin Laden told him the plan was unworkable.
Three years later, Bin Laden summoned Mohammed to Afghanistan and gave him the green light. Soon he moved his family from Pakistan to an Al Qaeda base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to proceed with the operation.
By October 2000, Mohammed had risen in the ranks and was in firm control of the Sept. 11 plot, showing an array of management skills.
It was Mohammed who decided to send two hijackers to San Diego after coming across San Diego phone books in a local market in Karachi, Pakistan, and determining that it had numerous flight schools and other important amenities.
Mohammed told the two to visit the zoo and other tourist sites so they would blend in while they were taking flight lessons and otherwise preparing for the suicide hijackings.
He told his interrogators he provided "personalized training" to an estimated 39 Al Qaeda operatives for deployment on missions.
And Mohammed revealed some of his management stratagems to his interrogators.
"Simplicity was the key to success," was one of them.
For instance, he told the plot's co-conspirators not to use codes, especially in routine messages or e-mails.
"He asked the operatives to be normal to the maximum extent possible in their dealings, to keep the tone of their letters educational, social or commercial, and to keep the calls short."