Architect of Terror

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FBI/GETTY IMAGES

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a suspected al Qaeda terrorist, was arrested at a house in Rawalpindi, Pakistan

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But Mohammed was being radicalized, first by the Iran-Iraq war — he backed fundamentalist Iran against the secular Iraqis — and then by the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. He finished his engineering degree at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, graduating in 1986. He later followed older brother Zahed to Peshawar, where he trained volunteers during the Afghan war against the Soviets. There he met bin Laden.

He first appeared on U.S. intelligence-agency screens after the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. Hours before a truck bomb in a basement parking lot went off, Yousef flew to Pakistan, then made his way to Manila, where he hooked up with Mohammed. The bombing is not thought to have been sponsored by al-Qaeda, but investigators believe al-Qaeda leaders were so impressed by Yousef's enterprise that they resolved to support his future endeavors. The conduit, it's believed, was bin Laden's brother-in-law Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, who then headed the Philippines office of the Islamic Charitable Organization and was supposedly channeling funds to terrorist groups in Asia. According to Philippine intelligence officials, Mohammed and Yousef plotted assassination attempts against the Pope and President Clinton, as well as a scheme to hide bombs on 12 U.S. airline flights over the Pacific. They also planned an attack on CIA headquarters., using a hijacked commercial jetliner, a strategic prototype for the 9/11 strikes.

Mohammed never fit the image of a wild-eyed or even devout jihadi. With his easy smile and placid eyes, he had a reputation as a charmer and a ladies' man. When Yousef and Mohammed weren't plotting destruction together in Manila, they were partying, say Philippine intelligence agents. Mohammed took up with a bar girl he met at the Cotton Candy Club. Later he hired a helicopter and pilot to impress a female dentist he was courting. Yousef and Mohammed took their girlfriends scuba diving at beach resorts, but Mohammed remained an enigma even to the women he dated. None suspected that Mohammed, who passed himself off as a Saudi plywood exporter, was the leader of a radical Islamic cell.

Mohammed's plans were exposed by accident. While experimenting with explosives in January 1995, Yousef set fire to his Manila apartment and fled. Police found evidence linking him to Mohammed. Other plotters arrested in Asia named Mohammed as their ringleader. But by then he had escaped to Doha, Qatar. In 1996 he was indicted in absentia in a New York federal court for the airline-bombing plot. But when the U.S. notified Qatar that he was a wanted man, Mohammed was tipped off and fled the emirate, according to Washington intelligence sources. As for Yousef, he was captured in Pakistan in 1995 and convicted of carrying out the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He is now serving life plus 240 years in a U.S. prison.

Mohammed's name would not surface again until after he helped complete the job Yousef bragged to the FBI about doing: toppling the World Trade Center towers. (Intelligence officials still can't fill that five-year gap in his dossier.) Last year in Karachi, he and Binalshibh gave an interview to an al-Jazeera TV reporter in which they spoke proudly of carrying out what they called "the martyrdom operation inside America." On camera, they provided details of the attack, disclosing coded e-mails that had referred to the Twin Towers as "the Faculty of Town Planning." They also displayed a suitcase full of souvenirs, such as handwritten notes to the hijackers, CD-ROM flight simulators and aviation charts of America's East Coast. Since Oct. 11, 2001, there has been a $25 million price on his head. Police officials aren't saying whether anyone is claiming the money.

Nor are they saying where they took Mohammed after his arrest. He is likely to end up in VIP detention, kept in isolation, like Zubaydah and Binalshibh. Mohammed faces a conga line of interrogators: U.S. military officials, the CIA, the FBI. And even if Mohammed never talks, anything found on discs, on his cell phone or in his pockets that indicates names or locations of other al-Qaeda operatives could help in finding the lower-level terrorists who look to him for command and control. Working up and down his lines of communication might prevent any attacks he was overseeing. "Clearly, he's someone who can take you back through a number of past attacks and resolve all those questions that so many of us have — about the original Trade Center bombing, to the present, to future attacks," says a senior U.S. official. They might even ask him where bin Laden is.

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