The Administration that Cried Wolf


It seems that, every so often, a new terrorist mastermind emerges who is to be hunted down and brought to justice. These masterminds also offer blanket, if remarkably convenient, confessions when captured. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the latest to fit this description.

Mohammed has allegedly confessed to being the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States and to beheading American journalist Daniel Pearl  in 2002. Most of the media has reported these confessions with remarkably little skepticism.

But skepticism is something that is necessary when seeking to understand the present situation, and there are a number of good reasons why. First is the likelihood that the confession was obtained under torture.

A number of Guantánamo Bay detainees past and present have made allegations of being tortured. Pakistan, where Sheikh Mohammed was captured, is also known to routinely use torture. And the use of torture in Iraq is well documented at a number of prison facilities operated by the occupying forces Abu Ghraib is but one well publicised example.

There is also the US’s longstanding practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ the secret abduction and detainment of individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. Suspects who are often later found to be innocent are interrogated in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and north and central Africa in countries all known to use torture

Quite apart from its moral reprehensibility, torture is a poor method of obtaining evidence because it compels the victim to tell the torturer what they want to hear. There is perhaps no more dramatic example of this than the story of the Tipton Three three young British Asian men who were captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and subjected to a range of abuse at Guantánamo Bay including beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual assault.

After the abusive interrogation, the three confessed to being the unidentified faces in a video allegedly showing a meeting between Osama bin Laden and 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta. It was later realised that the Tipton Three could not have possibly appeared in the video because all three were in Britain when the meeting occurred, and they were eventually released.

Given the immense importance placed on Mohammed as a top al-Qaeda operative, and the nature of the sweeping confessions he has provided, it is not far-fetched to presume his confessions were obtained under torture.

There is another reason to be skeptical of Mohammed’s confession this has everything to do with politics. The Bush Administration has been under immense pressure in the wake of a revitalised Democratic Party and a string of scandals and errors including, but not limited to, the occupation of Iraq.

Immediately prior to the confession being made public, both Democrats and Republicans started calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s resignation following allegations that he dismissed a string of Federal prosecutors for political reasons, and that the FBI improperly accessed personal information using the Patriot Act. This year, on 7 March Louis Libby, former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, was found guilty of lying to FBI agents and grand jurors investigating the disclosure of a CIA operative. And in Iraq, an unpopular and illegal war continues to kill more and more Iraqis and Americans with no clear denouement in sight.

Announcing Mohammed’s confession at this juncture gives the Bush Administration something to indicate to the public that they have delivered on their stated policy of bringing terrorists to justice while diverting attention from their mistakes.

Even Mohammed’s capture three years ago on 1 March 2003 seemed remarkably expedient. Debate in the US and around the world in those days was thick with threats of war with Iraq for refusing to decommission its alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and for its support for terrorists. In Pakistan, there was pressure from the US for the Musharraf regime to support a United Nations Security Council resolution authorising the invasion of Iraq.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Within Pakistan, the US’s threatened invasion of Iraq was intensely unpopular, some even claimed that any overt support of the invasion by Pakistan could lead to the ousting of Musharraf. Moreover at a time when so much public awareness was focused on the threat posed by a rogue State and its alleged support for terrorists it would not take much imagination to wonder why Pakistan was not also the focus of an American invasion.

The announcement of Mohammed’s capture at this time gave Musharraf and Pakistan a wonderful bargaining chip with which to sit on the fence avoiding having to give overt support for the American invasion of Iraq, as well as closer scrutiny of the strong links between the Pakistani State and militant Islamists..

Following Mohammed’s capture, Hamid Gul, the former Head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) one of the most powerful institutions in the country spoke to Reuters:

Gul said news of the arrest appeared to have been leaked at a critical time, just as Pakistan was facing huge US pressure to support a UN Security Council vote authorising war on Iraq. On Monday night, a senior ruling party official told Reuters the government, under massive domestic pressure to oppose war on a fellow Muslim State, had decided to abstain in the vote, news that shocked British and American diplomats in Islamabad.

The ISI earlier said it had called its first news conference in Pakistan’s history to counter criticism in the Western media that it had not done enough in the war on terror. Gul said the raid may have been staged and news of the arrest leaked for the same reason, against the backdrop of the UN vote. Gul, who ran the ISI from 1987 to 1989, said the raid was conducted in far too casual a fashion to have been real, with police failing to properly surround or secure the house in a middle-class Rawalpindi suburb.

Unfortunately, the doubt over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed does not end there. Leaving aside whether Mohammed is actually the mastermind the US claims he is there is uncertainty as to whether the man who is in US custody is actually him.

Taliban representatives in Pakistan denied the man captured was Mohammed. In March 2003, shortly after his capture, Pakistani journalist Tariq Ali explained to ABC television’s

Reports from Pakistan are coming out from what are described as Taliban sources, [that is]members of the former Government in Afghanistan who are now around in Pakistan, who are denying that he has been captured and saying, ‘We know exactly where the guy they’re claiming to have captured is,’ and until he is produced before a court of law or interviewed or allowed access to the press or lawyers, we will not know who he is.

And on 3 March 2007, The Guardian reported that the family living in the house where Mohammed was said to have been captured denied that he had ever been there:

At no point, the family say, was Mohammed or any other man in the house. The agents did not even ask about them. ‘The only people in the house were my brother, his wife and their kids,’ Qudsia said. ‘I have absolutely no idea why the police came here.’

But perhaps the most surprising revelation was the city Mohammed was allegedly captured. Rawalpindi is the location of the two most powerful institutions in Pakistan the Army and the ISI. The home which was raided was in a district where many retired Army generals and ISI officers live. It is hard to imagine that they did not know for some time that Mohammed was there.

On 11 September, 2002, Pakistani officials claimed that they had killed or captured Mohammed during a raid in Karachi, Pakistan. It was later reported in some quarters that he had escaped but no mention was made of efforts to recapture him until the surprise disclosure of his capture almost 6 months later. To add to the uncertainty, officials from Pakistan and the US have variously claimed that Mohammed was being interrogated in Pakistan by Pakistan, or outside Pakistan by the United States.

These questions alone do not indicate that an innocent man has given a false confession to US authorities. It is possible that the real Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is currently facing trial at Guantánamo Bay and that he was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The dilemma in the present situation is not that it points to a vast global conspiracy rather, it demonstrates the dangers of the very secretive and unaccountable practices of the United States security apparatus and its Pakistani counterparts.

In the present climate, it is impossible to know fact from fiction because those arms of government charged with the impartial identification of security threats have been subsumed by political pressures. This creates a dangerous environment of distrust and uncertainty where no one is quite sure who is telling the truth least of all the public but perhaps also government.

There is a real prospect that the US’s and Pakistan’s politically motivated revelations of terrorist threats and confessions will mimic the old children’s fable of the boy who cried wolf.

Will they be ready to respond when the real wolf strikes?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.