Published September 30, 2011
Editor’s note: Fox News Opinion is pleased to present an excerpt from Fox News National Correspondent Catherine Herridge's new book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for Al Qaeda's American Recruits." The book will be published on June 21 by Crown Forum, an imprint of Random House. It's available from bookstores everywhere.
The courthouse is imposing: a large metal box. Several rings of fencing surround it. The barbs on the wire are three inches long and razor sharp. They glint in the sunlight. It is custom built for the trial of the century: the five 9/11 conspirators, almost two dozen lawyers, both civilian and military, as well as a handful of translators.
Just before 0900, the temperature is nearly 80 degrees though it feels much hotter. There are two screening checkpoints. Ids are shown. No bags, no electronics, no water bottles with labels are allowed in court. After some prodding, a young man with the coast guard explains that the detainees think they are being poisoned if their water bottles look different than ours.
There is no name patch on his uniform. Many of the sailors don't want to be identified. They don't want their families harassed. They didn't ask for the Guantanamo assignment in the first place. When their fellow soldiers come back from Afghanistan and Iraq, they get a pat on the back, a well done and a thank you. Those who return from Guantanamo speak of sneers and dirty looks.
With surveillance cameras trained down on us, the ACLU observers and others are having a smoke. We are waiting in the gravel courtyard for the final okay to enter. As the courthouse door opens, a blast of cold air hits us. As I cross the threshold, I wonder if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of 9/11, and his four co-conspirators ever feel Cuba’s oppressive heat or scan the picture perfect waves of the Atlantic. Guantanamo Bay is a place where absurd thoughts intrude with regularity.
Every journalist signs in. We are shown to our seats. Reinforced glass separates us from the terrorists. They are no more than 15 yards away. I am in the front row just to the left of a pillar with a fairly good vantage point. From what I can see, most of the men are not shackled. They wear white slip-on sneakers with no laces like little girls.
Having covered most of the big terrorism trials, experience has taught me that the most important moments come when court is not in session. This pre-trial period lives up to my expectations.
At the front left side of the court is the man himself – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. There is no resemblance to his mug shot that we, covering the trial, refer to as the terrorist’s John Belushi period. The disheveled hair and white T-shirt are replaced by a long white robe and head covering. His beard is now grey and well over 6 inches long. His glasses are military issue with thick black frames.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed is smiling. Though the sound, which is controlled by the military, is turned off or at least very low, we can see KSM gesturing wildly with his hands and talking at the top of his lungs. He greets his fellow co-conspirators like old friends at a high school reunion.
The men are survivors. They withstood the worst the US government could throw at them. The water boarding, sleep deprivation and pressure positions at the CIA secret prisons did not destroy them.
I am distracted by the sound of scratching. The sketch artist, Janet Hamlin, a small woman from Brooklyn with a gentle smile is feverishly drawing on her sketchpad. First, she lays out the raw outline of the courtroom and the men. Color comes next. I jerk myself back because an extraordinary scene is unfolding before me. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is now motioning to the others. He wants them to follow his lead. He waves a single defiant finger in the air when he senses dissent to his plan.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is already working the system. He wants the 9/11 conspirators to act as their own attorneys. He mocks the proceeding by calling it “an inquisition.” His delivery and body language suggest he’s been practicing the line in his cell.
KSM understands us better than we understand him. He knows whatever he says will be reported around the world. A military source says KSM devours every story, every web posting, every TV clip about him. Without question, he is Al Qaeda’s media whore.
And then, things get really crazy. For some unknown reason, a court security officer who is making decisions way above his pay grade thinks it’s a good idea for KSM to review Janet’s sketch. It's the one where he dominates the picture.
Turns out, KSM hates the sketch. He says the nose is all wrong, It’s too big or too ethnic or too something. It has to be fixed. KSM orders the sailors to get Janet his FBI mug shot. He, apparently, prefers this picture because he looks composed. His clothes are pressed.
So Janet fixes the sketch to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s satisfaction. Within minutes, the sketch is carried to our live shot position on the tarmac about 50 yards from the courthouse. It is filmed by the pool TV crew and then broadcast to millions.
Later in the evening, I sit on the equipment box near the live shot position. The sun is dropping like a red, hot ball into the Cuban hills.
"Who's in control," I say under my breath. "Us or the terrorists?"
The five 9/11 suspects are Al Qaeda’s old guard. It would crush their mammoth egos to know that they are yesterday’s news because the next wave of recruits is already crashing across America’s shores.
There is Faisal Shahzad. On a Saturday night, in May 2010, the naturalized American of Pakistani decent was accused of driving a crude car bomb into Times Square. Though trained by the Pakistani Taliban, Shahzad’s bomb failed to explode. Unrepentant to the end, the 31-year old was sentenced to life in prison.
There is Najibullah Zazi. Just three months earlier, the Denver airport shuttle bus driver, who was born in Afghanistan and raised in Pakistan and the U.S., pleaded guilty to an Al Qaeda plot to blow up the New York City subway system. He was trained overseas by Usama bin Laden’s network.
And there is Major Nidal Hasan. The Army psychiatrist allegedly shot to death 13 at Fort Hood in Texas, including 12 soldiers, one of them pregnant. Shortly after 13:30, on November 5th, 2009, Hasan walked into the Readiness Center where soldiers get medical checks before and after deployments. According to eyewitness accounts, Hasan opened fire as he shouted “Allahu Akbar” which means “God is great.” It took the Obama Administration three months to publicly acknowledge the Fort Hood massacre as an act of terrorism.
There are cases, like that of Anthony Joseph Tracy, a 35-year old Virginia man, that do not make national headlines. Described by his court appointed attorney as a father and a husband, Tracy was arrested for allegedly smuggling approximately 272 Somalis into the US. Some may have terrorist ties to an Al Qaeda affiliate known as al-Shabaab that is based in East Africa. In a polygraph test, Tracy told the Feds that Al-Shabaab approached him for help. And though he claims he refused, Tracy was held without bond because federal prosecutors said he was a public threat and a flight risk. He was later convicted on human trafficking charges and sentenced to three years probation and time served.
The list continues: Omar Hammami in Alabama, Daniel Boyd in North Carolina, Carlos Bledsoe in Arkansas, David Headley and Michael Finton in Illinois, Hosam Smadi in Texas, Betim Kaziu in New York, Tarek Mehanna in Massachusetts. Analysts may disagree over whether these men truly qualify as Al Qaeda members or simply Al Qaeda wannabes inspired by the network’s message. They may even be innocent.
After 9/11, Al Qaeda’s top down structure, much like a Fortune 500 company, splintered and morphed. With the US invasion of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda reconstituted in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Recruits still travelled to the camps to get hands on experience in bombing making and explosives. But by 2006, there was a perceptible shift.
As CIA director Leon Panetta warned Congress in January of 2010, Al Qaeda’s tactics were evolving. The new recruits were in their 20’s with clean backgrounds. They were hard to detect. They no longer made the obligatory pilgrimage to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training. Instead, they travelled to Yemen or Somalia. Some were radicalized right here in America.
In a growing number of cases, Al Qaeda’s followers are just like us. They are educated here or born here. The radicalization process is compressed. An offbeat loner can reach out and become a dedicated killer in a matter of months.
In the late 90’s, as a foreign correspondent based in London, a former weapons inspector in Iraq gave me a piece of advice that still rings true today. We were in a London pub, talking over warm beers.
“Catherine, “he said. “Terrorism is like water. It takes the path of least resistance. You move one way and it moves another. It is a thinking enemy.”
Al Qaeda and its attack on our country continue to shape my life and career. To my knowledge, I am the only network TV correspondent to cover 9/11 in New York, to report on the war on terror from Washington D.C. for nearly a decade and to follow the narrative of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators to a military court in Guantanamo Bay.
I live in a military family so my perspective is different. I am not sitting on the sidelines reporting the story. I am feeling the impact. In 2009, my husband an Air Force Major and West Point graduate was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. It is the birthplace of the Taliban. For nine months, I was a single parent with two children under five. Phone calls late at night made me nervous.
When I investigate the future of Al Qaeda, it’s personal. I need to know what my family and our nation are in for. What I see, through my reporting, is a growing body of evidence that Al Qaeda’s American recruits are already here.
Reprinted with permission from Crown Forum.