GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – When a visibly aged Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices were reunited in a sterile military courtroom here Thursday, they laughed and chatted like old school chums and apparently rekindled their common cause: to defy their American enemies or die trying.
Strident and unremorseful over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks they allegedly plotted, four of the men declared their eagerness to be executed.
Asked by the tribunal’s chief judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, if he recognized he could be put to death if convicted, Mohammed said: “This is what I wish. I’m looking to be a martyr for a long time.”
Sporting a bushy gray beard and elastic-banded spectacles and looking a generation older than his 43 years, the man known to his interrogators and captors as KSM occasionally stood to make random observations to the crowded courtroom or to adjust his white tunic and head wrap. At times he looked indifferent to the life-or-death issues around him.
Alleged al-Qaida training camp steward Waleed bin Attach, a boyish-looking 30-year-old, had a question for Kohlman. “Will we be buried at Guantanamo or will our bodies be returned to our countries?” he inquired dispassionately.
Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to have coordinated the Hamburg, Germany, sleeper cell while three of the four Sept. 11 pilots waited for their orders to hijack U.S. airliners, reminded the court that he had tried to be part of the suicide mission but was denied a U.S. visa.
“I have been seeking martyrdom for five years!” said Binalshibh, when warned that he could face death if convicted. “If this martyrdom happens today, I will welcome it. God is great! God is great! God is great!”
Binalshibh was the only defendant wearing shackles on his bulging ankles, a restraint that Guantanamo authorities declined to explain. With the courtroom ringed by camouflage-clad security guards and the entire structure surrounded by concentric rings of razor wire-topped fences, the likelihood of escape appeared remote. Ali Abd al Aziz Ali told Kohlmann he shared the views of the three who praised martyrdom before him and replied nonchalantly to Kohlmann’s query as to whether he knew the ultimate penalty could be levied against him: “Naturally. I know.”
Ali, who insisted to the court that his real name is Ammar al Baluchi, spoke in fluent English, mocking the judge’s earnest assurances of his rights to legal assistance.
A nephew of KSM and a college-trained computer engineer, Ali observed that it was late for his U.S. jailors to be offering him a lawyer.
“Everything that has happened here is unfair and unjust. Since the first time I was arrested, I might have appreciated that,” Ali said of the offer of free legal representation.
“The government is talking about lawyers free of charge. The government also tortured me free of charge all these years,” he said.
Kohlmann told him he considered it unwise for the defendants to insist on representing themselves, to which Ali retorted: “For me, this proceeding in its entirety is unwise.”
While the defendants were defiant of the military authority around them, none mentioned al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden. Neither did they express remorse for the nearly 3,000 victims of the attacks.
Mohammed’s defiance had been expected, as he confessed to masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks during a March 2007 hearing here after being transferred six months earlier from secret CIA custody abroad. He also claimed in tribunal to have personally wielded the saber that beheaded kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Kohlmann said he would issue a schedule for motions and a trial date after further reflection but seemed inclined toward getting the case going as soon as possible. Prosecutors have suggested mid-September for start of trial. The judge also deferred ruling on whether Binalshibh and Hawsawi should be allowed to reject their military lawyers and defend themselves.
In Thursday’s proceeding, which stretched over 10 hours to include breaks for lunch and prayer calls, it was apparent Mohammed was directing the effort by the defendants to present a united front in refusing work with military defense lawyers.
He and Binalshibh interjected comments and observations when other defendants were being questioned. The Army lawyer for Saudi suspect Mustafa Ahmad al Hawsawi said his client had come into the courtroom willing to work with his defense team until KSM taunted him.
“What are you in the American Army now?” Hawsawi’s defense lawyer, Army Maj. Jon Jackson, quoted Mohammed as saying to badger his client.
When asked by the judge if he accepted Jackson and the other military defenders to represent him, Hawsawi echoed the other four: “I want to defend myself, by myself.”
Their animated banter with Kohlmann in the high-security courtroom at this U.S. naval base in southern Cuba exposed what appeared to be an eagerness to collaborate with one another and coordinate their actions. They laughed and chatted for half an hour from their seats at the ends of five long defense tables before Kohlmann gaveled the arraignment into session.
Dressed in the white tunics, skull caps and head wraps of their Islamic cultures, they conferred, stage-whispering in Arabic from one table to the next, well into Kohlmann’s recitation of the tribunal’s rules and procedures.
The judge sought to hold the arraignment to a rigid timetable, rejecting numerous defense appeals for delay to allow more time to persuade their clients to accept their representation. Nevertheless, the defendants often appeared to be in command of the proceedings, professing their contempt for their captors and at times provoking laughs from the gallery of media and human rights observers behind a soundproofed glass wall at the back of the courtroom.
In a melodious singing voice, Mohammed chanted Quran verses expressing faith in Allah to protect him, then provided their English translations, observing that his linguistic skills seemed better than the tribunal’s official Arabic translator.
KSM denounced U.S. law as immoral, pointing to some states’ recognition of gay marriage. “Evil laws are not the laws of God, laws allowing same-sexual marriage,” he told the court. “I consider all American laws under the Constitution to be evil.”
He also chastised Kohlmann for telling civilian defense lawyers with expertise in capital cases to sit down and be quiet when they objected to his refusal to postpone the proceedings.
And he deemed the tribunal “an inquisition, not a trial.”
“After five years of torturing … you transfer us to Inquisition Land in Guantanamo,” he said.
At times he was exceedingly deferential, leaving court spectators uncertain if he was mocking Kohlmann.
“Go right ahead,” he offered, when the judge interrupted one of his lengthier assurances that God was on his side.