“You may not be in a religious war with me, but I’m in a religious war with you,” recalled former CIA interrogator James Mitchell the views of al-Qaeda (AQ) mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM). Interviewed on December 6 at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) before an audience of about 70, Mitchell provided chilling, essential insight into the jihadist worldview currently threatening the globe.
AEI Resident Fellow Marc A. Thiessen introduced Mitchell as someone who “has spent thousands of hours with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and other senior al-Qaeda operatives” and “looked directly into the face of evil.” Mitchell concurred that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, considered the leading technical genius behind AQ’s devastating September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was “devil and diva,” whom Mitchell and other interrogators called “muq” after the Arabic word for brain, muqtar. Comparing him to a Star Wars “Jedi master” recruiting jihadist “Jedi warriors,” Mitchell found him “immensely charming. He reminded me of Yoda,” yet “that is often how evil looks.”
Mitchell recalled that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad “thought he was a Sufi” and “likes to sit there and talk…to tell you about his religion,” yet he appeared to Mitchell as no mere blusterer. Mitchell compared his AEI audience to Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, stating “I haven’t seen this much raw brain power in one place since the last time I sat in his cell with just him.” He “is probably the brightest person I have ever seen in my life, and I have seen some pretty bright people.”
Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s evil genius came to life in Mitchell’s recounting of his description of his 2002 murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter and jihadist hostage in Pakistan. He remembered that he “had sharp knives. The toughest part was getting through the neck bone.” or him, this killing showed God’s “glory, shows how much his influence is. It’s almost like an act of worship to him.”
While “not attacking all of Islam,” Mitchell saw in Khalid Sheikh Mohammad how “these Islamists, who want to destroy our way of life, have a set of beliefs that make them incredibly dangerous.” For Islamists, “how we’re supposed to live was established 1,400 years ago in the Koran and in the perfect words and deeds” of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad considered Islam a “religion of peace. The world will be at peace when sharia law is imposed on the whole world.”
Speaking of jihadists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Mitchell emphasized the “depth of their belief. I don’t think most Americans understand that they, no kidding, believe what they believe.” Jihadists “really do believe they’re going to end up with 72 spiritual beings that become virgins every time you have sex with them.” “It sounds ridiculous to me,” but “they really do believe they’re going to be treated like rock stars up there.”
Mitchell’s interrogations of another captured AQ jihadist, Abu Zubaydah, revealed that “Al Qaeda dreams of bringing down America with catastrophic attacks, but that’s not particularly practical.” For him, the “real way to bring down America was with low-tech, ‘lone-wolf’ attacks because the target is not our military capabilities. It’s not our buildings. It’s not our roads. It’s the minds of the Americans.” “We don’t have to defeat you. We only have to persist long enough for you to defeat yourself.”
Similarly, Mitchell noted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad “got fascinated by the Beltway sniper” who killed numerous individuals outside of Washington, DC, in 2002; he “would spend hours to me talking about that” and its “economy of scale.” Accordingly, he fantasized about multiple “single martyrs, shahids, who would go into the American culture and pull off low-tech attacks…with enough of those low-tech attacks, like happened with the Beltway shooter, it would cripple America.” Thus he “bought a gas station in Pakistan so he could figure out how to build a bomb that they could slide down into the gas tanks at gas stations.”
Describing such subversion to Mitchell in 2004, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad proved to be “pretty good at predicting the future.” He believed that
Islamists, like himself, are going to migrate to the United States, immigrate to the United States, wrap themselves in our civil rights to protect themselves, live off our welfare system to feed themselves, spread their jihadi message, and then when the time is right rise up and overthrow us from within.
Jihadists like Abu Zubaydah explained to Mitchell how they intended to exploit the nature of free societies against them. Abu Zubaydah “told us that our civil liberties, our willingness to be tolerant of other people, our openness, those were all flaws that Allah had put into our character to ensure that Islamists could win.” Mitchell was “certain if I sat down and said, what do you think of all this obsessive political correctness, he would say, another flaw…it’s a cloaking device so they can operate in the open without being confronted.”
Mitchell’s particular concern with political correctness involved the condemnation he and other American officials received for their use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) like waterboarding, often decried as torture. Like many captured jihadists, CIA interrogators “tried tea and respectful conversation” to elicit information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammad after his initial capture, yet “he rocked and prayed…quoted the Koran, and acted belligerently.” EITs for a few weeks served to break this resistance and make captured jihadists agree to a more cooperative relationship. Although a “horrific thing…when we did EITs, it was more like a surgical suite” involving monitors like doctors and psychologists; “anyone could stop the interrogations anytime.”
“I think the American public needs to have a debate about how they want to protect themselves,” Mitchell stated in reflection upon EIT controversies. Recalling how he won repeated official approval for EITs, he stated that “I waterboarded almost as many lawyers as I did terrorists,” including a Department of Justice assistant attorney general. Absent such reflected debate, “if this obsessive political correctness continues, we’re going to be standing on the moral high ground looking down into our smoking hole that used to be several blocks in Los Angeles.”
Cross-posted from the Religious Freedom Coalition