GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba--We're on a break for lunch and a scheduled prayer time for top 9/11 suspects who are being arraigned here today. It's been an extraordinary last couple of hours, sitting in the courtroom press gallery, a mere 50 feet from a person who bears the name Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed. KSM, the self-confessed mastermind of 9/11. Without him, the government says, Sept. 11th would not have happened. There he is, 50 feet away. KSM, talking and breathing and existing like everyone else.
I have spent the last several hours staring at him. I watched as this man we've come to think of as evil called American law "evil" and rejected his U.S. lawyers, saying he would not be represented by people governed by "George Bush, who waged crusade against the Islamic world."
He spoke in calm and measured tones. He didn't rant, except perhaps when he digressed into "same sexual marriage," which he said showed the Constitution is "evil." He said he was governed by religious law, and he read from the Koran. But even then he was controlled, purposeful. He said he wished to be a martyr and die for his crimes. He also said he had been subjected to torture, and he called the court hearing an "inquisition."
Wearing large, black round glasses and a white robe and cap, KSM was almost unrecognizable from the last public image of him, when he was photographed after his 2003 capture looking slovenly and disheveled in a plain white t-shirt. He has grown a long and bushy gray beard, and seems much older than his 43 years.
But in many ways, the man who has admitted to orchestrating the 9/11 attacks was again completely in control. He even told the Judge Ralph Kohlmann to "continue" or "go ahead," as if he were giving him permission to proceed, and when the morning session took a break, he viewed and rejected the courtroom artist’s sketch because he didn’t like his nose.
He also appeared to be strategizing with the four other top al-Qaeda suspects in court today who are charged with plotting, financing or organizing the 9/11 attacks. Each of the five sat at separate tables, with teams of lawyers at their sides.
As the lawyers and judges argued over legal points, the five spent much of the hearing whispering and passing information back and forth. KSM would whisper to the defendant seated at the table next to him, Walid bin Attash, who would pass it to the next defendant and on down the line.
It is believed to be the first time the five al-Qaeda suspects have seen each other or spent time together since their capture, and they laughed and gestured at each other at times.
Of the five, only Ramzi Bin al-Shibh was wearing shackles and chained to the floor at his seat. He is the Yemeni who allegedly was supposed to have been a hijacker, but was denied a US visa. In court, he was the most defiant and robust. When the prosecutor announced the charges against him, he turned to the press assembled in the back of the courtroom and smiled broadly and pointed to himself.
The hearing began with a prosecutor announcing the five had received the charges against them, which include murder, terrorism and conspiracy and carry a penalty of death.
Kohlmann then began advising the suspects they have a right to a lawyer. He spoke first to KSM, who quickly injected that he would reject his lawyers and defend himself.
"From the religious view we cannot accept any American citizen to represent us while we have America still in Afghanistan, Iraq," he told Kohlmann. "We still have artillery in our Holy Land."
He said he was governed not by US laws, but by religious law, and he read passages from the Koran in Arabic, and then translated them in English.
"God says nothing shall befall us, save what Allah has ordained for us," KSM said. "He’s our protector, and believers should put our faith in him."
Kohlmann spoke slowly to KSM, explaining his rights to counsel and urging him to accept his legal team. He stopped several times, asking KSM if he understood the charges and the penalties.
"If you are found guilty of the charges against you, this court could also…sentence you to death," Kohlnamm told KSM.
"Yes, this is what I wish," he responded. "I’m looking to be martyred for a long time."
Kohlmann urged KSM to keep his lawyers, saying it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to represent himself, and that his lawyers would be independent and aggressive. But KSM said he was not concerned.
"I know my team is maybe the best team," KSM said. "The problem is their president is George Bush, who wage crusade against the Islamic world…waged war against Afghanistan and Iraq."
He also lashed out at the system set up to try the 9/11 suspects, and he said he hadn’t been able to meet long enough with his lawyers, regardless of whether he would use them. He also accused the government of torture.
"It is an inquisition," he said. "We’ve been five years and torture. And they come maybe two times."
"All of this is taken under torture, you know that?" he asked Kohlmann. "After torturing, they transfer us to inquisition-land in Guantanamo."