Mohammed came from a family with strong religious and political views. He was born on April 24, 1965, in the Fahaheel neighborhood of Budu Camp, Kuwait. His father was a Muslim cleric from the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Because of the citizenship rules of Kuwait, the family remained as guest workers instead of Kuwaiti citizens. The young Mohammed grew up in Kuwait resenting his inferior status. Mohammed was a good student and excelled in science. His father died before he graduated high school, and his elder brothers assumed responsibility for his care. Because both brothers had strong political views, they guided his political orientation, which eventually led him to join the Muslim Brotherhood at age 16. He graduated from Fahaheel Secondary School in 1983, and his brothers decided to send Mohammed to the United States to further his education. Mohammed traveled to the United States in 1983 to study mechanical engineering at Chowan College, a Baptist school in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. After a short stay there, Mohammed transferred to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro (now University of North Carolina at Greensboro). At both schools, Mohammed remained aloof from American students and American society. Most of his contacts were with other students from Arab countries.
After graduating in 1986 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Mohammed traveled to Pakistan to join the mujahideen in fighting Soviets in Afghanistan. His older brother Zahed Sheikh Mohammed was head of a Kuwaiti charity, the Committee for Islamic Appeal (Lajnat al Dawa al Islamia [LDI]), in Peshawar, Pakistan. His brother Abed worked for Abdul Rasool Sayyaf's newspaper in Peshawar. For a time Mohammed taught engineering at a local university. The three brothers worked together with Abdullah Azzam, Sayyaf, and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar to determine the strategy of the Afghan resistance. Mohammed's war experiences in Afghanistan changed his life, especially after he lost his brother Abed in the fighting late during the war, at the Battle of Jalalabad. Mohammed became secretary to the Afghan warlord Sayyaf and, through him, made the acquaintance of Osama bin Laden and other Islamist leaders.
After the end of the Afghan-Soviet War in 1989, Mohammed stayed in Pakistan, where he devoted his activities to operations run against the West. When the political situation in Afghanistan deteriorated for Islamist militants, Mohammed looked elsewhere for employment. The conflict in Bosnia attracted him, and he fought with the mujahideen there in 1992. During these years, Mohammed held a number of jobs before ultimately working for the Qatari government as an engineer in its electricity headquarters.
Mohammed's first involvement in a major terrorist operation was with his nephew, Ramzi Yousef. His role in the planning of the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City is still mostly conjecture, but it is known that he sent Yousef $660 to help build the bomb. This bombing, however, proved a disappointment: although it caused many casualties, it failed to cause the collapse of the Twin Towers or kill the hoped-for thousands. After Yousef returned to Karachi, Pakistan, he met with Mohammed. It was at one of these meetings in 1993 that Yousef and his friend, Abdul Hakim Murad, suggested a way to attack the United States. Murad, who had earned a commercial pilot license at an American commercial pilot school, proposed packing a small airplane full of explosives and dive-bombing into the Pentagon or the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mohammed quizzed Murad about details of pilot training and the ways that such an operation might be carried out. Nothing was done at that time, but Mohammed later used this information in the September 11 plot.
Later in 1993 Mohammed contacted Hambali, the operation chief of the Indonesian Islamist terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. Mohammed and Yousef traveled to the Philippines to work on a plan, Operation BOJINKA, that envisaged the bombing of a dozen U.S. commercial aircraft over the Pacific during a two-day period. He also worked with Yousef to plan the assassination of Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Philippines, but a chemical mishap caused by Yousef ended this attempt. Mohammed returned to Pakistan, where he kept in touch with Yousef. Only after Yousef was captured in 1995 did Mohammed begin to make separate plans for terrorist operations, one of which was the use of commercial aircraft as terrorist weapons. However, he needed allies before undertaking such a massive operation.
American intelligence was slow to realize the importance of Mohammed in the terrorist world even as he traveled throughout the Muslim world making contacts. Evidence obtained in Yousef 's apartment in Manila indicated Mohammed's association with Yousef, but nothing else was known. Beginning in 1993, Mohammed lived in Doha, Qatar, working at the Ministry of Electricity and Water. In his spare time, Mohammed raised money for terrorist groups. Enough evidence about his participation in Yousef 's activities existed that a New York grand jury issued a secret indictment against him in January 1996. Although American authorities tried to persuade Qatari officials to extradite Mohammed, the Qatari government was reluctant to do so. Efforts to mount a seizure operation were hindered by a lack of commitment on the part of the American military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Eventually a half-hearted effort was made by the FBI, but Mohammed was long gone, warned by his friend Abdullah ibn Khalid, the minister of religious affairs in Qatar, that the Americans were looking for him.
Mohammed began cooperating with Al Qaeda in 1996. Bin Laden invited him to join Al Qaeda's military committee under Mohammad Atef. Mohammed was to swear loyalty (bayat) to bin Laden and to Al Qaeda, bringing with him connections to the Middle East and South Asia, as well as plans to attack the United States. He met with bin Laden and Atef, Al Qaeda's military commander, at bin Laden's Tora Bora mountain refuge in 1996, where Mohammed presented to them a variety of terrorist schemes, the most promising of which was the use of commercial airliners as flying bombs to use against targets in the United States. Yet, though bin Laden asked Mohammed to join Al Qaeda, Mohammed turned him down, wishing to retain his autonomy. Despite this, Mohammed developed a close working relationship with Al Qaeda. Mohammed needed Al Qaeda to supply money and martyrs for his operations even as he supplied the planning, but bin Laden was noncommittal about the plan until 1998, when he proposed that the four leaders of the plane hijackings should be two Saudis (Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi) and two Yemenis (Walid Mohammed bin Attash and Abu Bara al-Yemeni). This plan, however, fell apart when the two Yemenis were unable to obtain American visas. At this time no need existed for pilots—something that soon changed. This change of plans led to the later recruitment of Mohamed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Marwan al-Shehhi from the Hamburg Cell. American intelligence had no idea of the extent of Mohammed's growing contacts with Al Qaeda, but the FBI was offering a $2 million reward for his capture because of his role in the Manila plot.
Shortly after his 1996 meeting with bin Laden, Mohammed began recruiting operatives for a future suicide mission. His liaison with Al Qaeda's leadership was Ramzi bin al-Shibh. He briefed bin Laden and the leadership of Al Qaeda orally on his final plan for a suicide mission using commercial aircraft sometime in 1998 or 1999. By this time, Mohammed, who had sworn a loyalty oath to bin Laden, had been integrated into Al Qaeda's leadership hierarchy. Recruits for the mission were trained at the Afghan al-Matar Training Complex, where Abu Turab al-Urduni, a Jordanian trainer, taught them how to hijack planes, disarm air marshals, and use explosives. Mohammed confessed in a June 2002 interview with the Muslim journalist Yosri Fouda that the operation in the United States had been planned two-and-a-half years before it took place.
Mohammed's original plan included the hijacking of 10 aircraft and the destruction of 10 targets but was ultimately reduced to 4 targets. Once the operatives were selected and Mohamed Atta had been picked and briefed as mission leader, Mohammed watched from behind the scenes.
After September 11, Mohammed knew that he was a marked man. He eluded capture for nearly two-and-a-half years. Considerable investigation was required by American authorities before they realized just how important Mohammed was to the planning of September 11; but once his importance was realized, his capture was only a matter of time. On March 1, 2003, a joint team of Pakistani and American agents arrested Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, seizing his computer, cell phones, and documents. For more than two-and-a-half years, American authorities held him at a remote prison site in Pakistan, where he was interrogated about his role in Al Qaeda and in the September 11 attacks. In September 2006 Mohammed was transferred to the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp. In early March 2007 the Bush administration announced that he and others would appear before military courts which would determine whether or not they were enemy combatants; enemy combatants would appear before a military tribunal. Before the proceedings, it was reported that Mohammed had been increasingly forthcoming about his role in the September 11 plot. His confessions included myriad plots—most of which were never carried out or were failures. At his hearing at the Combatant Status Review Tribunal Hearing on March 10, 2007, Mohammed stated that he had been the organizer of the September 11 plot, justifying it as part of a war between the Islamist world and the United States. Mohammed also confessed to complicity in many other plots, among which were the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the killing of the Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan—in which he claimed personal involvement only, stating that it was not related to his Al Qaeda activities. Although his open confession of participation in these terrorist acts equated to a guilty plea, Mohammed simultaneously claimed that he had been tortured.
In February 2008, military prosecutors charged Mohammed and five other Guantánamo prisoners with war crimes and murder for their roles in the September 11 attacks and said they would seek the death penalty for the six men. During his arraignment hearing before a military tribunal in Guantánamo Bay in June 2008, Mohammed declared he wanted to be put to death and viewed as a martyr. In November 2009, the Barack Obama administration announced that Mohammed and four coconspirators would face a civilian trial in New York City. However, after that news set off a firestorm of controversy, those plans were dropped, and the U.S. government is still searching for a suitable location for the trial. In the meantime, Mohammed is being held indefinitely under the laws of war.
Stephen E. Atkins
Fouda, Yosri, and Nick Fielding. Masterminds of Terror: The Truth behind the Most Devastating Terrorist Attack the World Has Ever Seen. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2003; McDermott, Terry. Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers; Who They Were, Why They Did It. New York: HarperCollins, 2005; Lance, Peter. 1000 Years for Revenge: International Terrorism and the FBI; The Untold Story. New York: ReganBooks, 2003; Eggen, Dan. "9/11 Report Says Plotter Saw Self as Superterrorist." Washington Post, July 27, 2004, A1; Richey, Warren. "The Self-Portrait of an Al Qaeda Leader." Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 2007, 1; Soltis, Andy. "'I Did 9/11 from A to Z'—Qaeda Big's Evil Boasts & Slay-Plot Shockers at Gitmo Trial" New York Post, March 15, 2007, 8.