Letter from a Guantanamo jail

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed uses familiar genre of prison writing to spout distracting nonsense

February 28, 2014 7:00AM ET
A sketch of Khalid Shekih Mohammed by a court artist during a recess at a Guantanamo hearing.
Janet Hamlin/EPA/Landov

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who planned and directed the 9/11 attacks, has issued what is in some quarters being called a manifesto proclaiming, uh, what exactly? Mainly, I think, his megalomania, which runs very deep indeed.

Mohammed, known within the federal bureaucracy as KSM, has been in American custody now for more than a decade, the last seven years in a high-security prison at the American naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Aside from visits with his lawyers and a handful of letters exchanged with relatives in Iran and Pakistan, he has had during his imprisonment very little contact with the outside world. So it came as a surprise that a 36-page letter to the world was published last month by the Huffington Post and Great Britain’s Channel 4 news. Huffington and others following its reporting have emphasized what they characterize as Mohammed’s “newfound principle” of peaceful persuasion. This is placed in supposed contrast to his violent past, implying some change of heart.

That’s not at all what I read.

KSM devotes most of his efforts here to an examination of the differences he sees between Islam and Christianity. Part one of the proclamation is titled: “An Invitation to Happiness.” This sounds suspiciously like the opening prayer of a revival meeting or the first card in a PowerPoint presentation promoting a Tony Robbins program of self-renewal.

There is some degree of that intent here, too. KSM advocates nonviolent discussion as a means of converting those in the West to Islam. He points out contradictions he finds in the Bible, which should come as no surprise to anyone, given the Bible’s multiplicity of authors, eras and intents.  

But he also makes clear that this has nothing to do with the war he has spent his entire adult life waging. He says part one of the letter will be followed by two more parts, the second of which will address “why the Mujahedeen carried out 9/11 and whether it was a terrorist operation or an act of self-defense sanctioned by every constitution and international laws as the right of everyone whose land is occupied and whose people are attacked.”

I can hardly wait to see which side of that argument he lands on. In truth, we already know.

In his first appearance before a Guantanamo tribunal, now more than six years ago, KSM portrayed himself as George Washington righteously leading his people to freedom from their oppressor, the United States. He now offers no remorse or introspection, and there is no reason to think that is going to change.  

KSM’s manifesto takes little detours into the origins of the universe — he turns out to be a Thomas Aquinas, proof-from-design guy.

This manifesto turns out stylistically to be a lot like that earlier one and, not surprisingly, like Osama bin Laden’s proclamations of war against the West issued in the 1990s. There is a scattershot, erratic, often convoluted quality to these writings that point to a genre with an even longer lineage — the jailhouse letter.

These thick, hand-scrawled, postage-due packages arrive in newsrooms, courthouses and lawyers’ offices around the world with surprising frequency. You would almost always groan when one would arrive with your name on the envelope because you knew that the writer was usually unhinged to some degree, even if he had something worthwhile to say.

Part of being a prisoner of any kind is to suffer some degree of stir-craziness; people kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time invariably endure more of this than others. KSM assures his readers, however, that he is at peace: "I am very happy in my cell because my spirit is free even while my body is being held captive. I have been neither sad nor distressed in my solitary confinement since 2003 because I have been here with the Only One True God."

The bulk of this epistle is a screed against secularism and the corruption of the West. He includes conspiracy theories about why the West has gone off the rails and wonders about the infeasibility of the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity. He also takes little detours into the origins of the universe — he turns out to be a Thomas Aquinas, proof-from-design guy — and gives a brief explanation of the big bang.

He carefully refers to the origins of some of his ideas, and it seems to be one of the first jailhouse letters with footnotes, but it’s not. Many of the prisoner letters I’ve seen include source references for some wild argument or another. They’re often connected to the text by arrows because most prisoners don’t have a clerical and legal staff to edit their grammar and retype their correspondence, as KSM has apparently enjoyed here.

KSM’s missive ultimately says that this is a guy with a lot of time on his hands who has chosen to use some of it to instruct Americans on the errors of their ways. I notice that Channel 4 in its initial report interviewed a relative of one of those killed on 9/11. She asserted that she supports the use of military commissions at Guantanamo, but wishes they would move faster. She complained that holding criminal trials in New York City, as President Barack Obama first proposed, was a bad idea because it would have given KSM a platform to spout dangerous nonsense, which is of course exactly what he’s doing now.

I’m not certain about the dangerous part of that equation, but he surely has the nonsense down to a fine science.

Terry McDermott is a writer in California. He is the author of "Perfect Soldiers – The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were and Why They Did It" and, with Josh Meyer, "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter