9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Could Get Plea Deal, Escaping Death Penalty

9/11 plea deal
Taken by U.S. forces when KSM was captured., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just over two decades since the horrendous attacks on our homeland murdered nearly 3,000 people, the five men charged with planning the attack could get a plea deal. You read that right; perhaps the evilest men to walk the earth in recent decades may dodge the death penalty.

Hard to fathom just how that could be possible until you dive deeper into what surrounds this possibility. This news elicits some strong emotions from Americans, particularly those who lost family members 21 years ago.

Before we get into the emotions of the issue, it’s best to look into where this talk of a plea deal is coming from and what it might mean for the defendants and, as President Biden likes to call it; the soul of America. 

The Who And The What

Most of us have heard of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, commonly referred to as KSM; for those who may not be aware, he is also known as the architect of 9/11, even admitting to as much. However, the discussed plea deal involves not just KSM but four other defendants; Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.

The five men were charged in 2008 with terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder in violation of the laws of war. Their prosecution has taken place in a secretive military commissions system that was stood up post 9/11 to handle cases surrounding terrorism and terrorists.

The men have been held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba with 33 other prisoners. It’s important to note that over the last 20 years, this military commission system has only managed to convict eight prisoners successfully; six of those convictions came via plea deals.

So what would a potential plea deal mean for the five men? At a minimum, it would mean escaping the death penalty and the possibility of never facing an actual jury.

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Damaging To The Soul

So how on earth are we at a place where we are contemplating plea deals for KSM and his four compatriots? One word: torture. 

Over the years, it’s been revealed that while being held by the CIA in ‘black sites,’ the men held at Guantanamo Bay were subjected to various levels of torture. This makes prosecution difficult since we still believe in fair trials, even when faced with the worst men to have graced this blue marble of ours.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of waterboarding thanks to these CIA ‘black sites’ having to reveal their tactics. But, if you aren’t, it’s the process of simulating the drowning of a subject, of which KSM was subjected to a total of 183 times. 

One of the other defendants, Baluchi, had his head repeatedly slammed against a plywood wall, perhaps resulting in permanent brain damage. It’s not just these men whose trials have been fraught with difficulty due to issues of torture.

Majid Khan, a courier for Al-Qaeda that had been captured, received clemency after the military jury explained that the torture inflicted on Khan was:

“…a stain on the moral fiber of America.”

Khan had been sexually abused and kept nude, sleep deprived, and starved.

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Who Failed Whom?

As per the norm, it seems we have the United States government to blame for the possibility of a plea deal for KSM and company. One of the human rights attorneys assigned to the case says as much to CBS News, stating:

“The United States government failed all of us…”

Just last year, retired Marine Corps Brigadier General and former Chief Defense Counsel John Baker told Congress:

“At the heart of the commission’s problems is their original sin, torture. The United States chose to secretly detain and torture the men it now seeks to punish.”

The fact that Khan was granted clemency gives merit to the possibility that if KSM and his partners in crime go to trial, the probability that the jury would go for the death penalty is slim. Retired Navy judge Charles Stimson supports this theory:

“…the likelihood of their coming to a unanimous verdict with respect to the death penalty is close to zero.”

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Third Order Effects

The reality is if this ‘forever trial’ ends in a plea deal, there are more significant possible effects than just dodging the death penalty. A law in place forbids the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. soil.

So if KSM and these four men get their plea deal, more than likely, they would have to stay at Guantanamo Bay, putting quite the wrench in President Joe Biden’s hopes to close the famed terrorist prison. This would suit the defendants quite nicely as they have voiced a preference to stay at GITMO.

KSM and the other four are allowed to pray and eat together at GITMO. This would likely be a luxury not afforded to them if transferred to a supermax prison stateside, where solitary confinement is the norm.

If they receive their wish and get their plea deal, the taxpayers will foot the bill for their permanent residence at GITMO. It costs the taxpayer between $9.5 and $13 million per prisoner at Guantanamo Bay per year.

Closure or Justice?

Not all affected by 9/11 are against the idea of a plea deal. The September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows group, which consists of about 200 9/11 family members, is one such group amenable to the idea.

Provided the defendants aren’t allowed to appeal their sentence later, the group released a statement saying that a plea deal would mean:

“…some measure of judicial finality will be achieved.”

Not everyone feels the same, however. The sister of the pilot of American Airlines flight 77, which was slammed into the Pentagon on September 11th, told CBS News:

“I will not have closure as long as there is any possibility for some future President to commute their sentences or trade them away for something political that they want from some other country.”

Perhaps the best question posed in light of these revelations comes from Texas Republican Representative Michael McCaul:

“If this case doesn’t justify the death penalty, what does?”

Good question.

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