By Tim Rutten | Thursday’s arraignment before a military tribunal of five Al Qaeda members accused of planning and assisting the 9/11 terrorist atrocities seemed custom-made to assist the loathsome defendants in achieving exactly what they desire — an aura of martyrdom.
The prisoners, including the plot’s apparent mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were called to answer before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on murder, conspiracy and terrorism charges arising from the deaths of 2,973 people at New York’s World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in the Pennsylvania field where one of the airliners hijacked that day crashed.
It’s a sad but salutary thing to recall that number and that terrible day. The consolations of legal justice never can be complete, but they’re all we as a society have to offer the injured and the grieving. That’s why, when it comes to the handling of these cases, the Bush administration’s willful overreaching, contempt for fundamental American values and defiance of basic American notions of due process have set the stage for travesty and further tragedy.
By any reasonable standard, the Guantanamo tribunals are a farce. By the government’s own admission, Mohammed and other high-level Al Qaeda detainees have been tortured. The five men arraigned Thursday all face execution if convicted. Their military defense lawyers say they’ve been denied adequate access to their clients or time to prepare a reasonable defense. The pool reporters the Pentagon is allowing to cover the proceedings have to sit behind a glass partition and listen over a sound system with a 20-second delay. Ostensibly that’s to prevent the media from hearing any national security secret inadvertently blurted out during the testimony. Thursday, it apparently was used to shut off any mention of torture.
Mohammed has confessed his responsibility for 9/11 during an earlier proceeding: “I was responsible for the 9/11 operation from A to Z.” He also claimed he personally murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, among other atrocities: “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl.”
But because the Bush administration feared bringing him and his accomplices to trial in an ordinary American criminal court — where the rights of the accused are protected — Mohammed and his comrades are now in a position to challenge the justice and the legality of the proceedings against them in the court of public opinion. In this, they’re taking a page from a script first written by Irish Republicans early in the 20th century, then picked up by Gandhi’s passive resisters and Jewish freedom fighters in British-occupied Palestine. It’s a tactic that usually works — particularly when the prosecuting state is acting in defiance of its own laws.
That doesn’t make Mohammed and his accomplices innocent, and it doesn’t make them victims. However, it may very well make them martyrs in the eyes of marginalized young men in fanatic-infested backwaters across the Islamic world.
It’s hard, moreover, to imagine this abomination of a “trial” coming at a worse time, because the chance to portray the Guantanamo defendants as martyrs is just the lifeline Al Qaeda needs at the moment. Earlier this month, Lawrence Wright, whose magisterial “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, returned to the subject of the terrorist organization in a brilliantly reported New Yorker magazine article that has been too little noticed. In his article, Wright demonstrates that, while Al Qaeda continues to enjoy some success in Iraq and increased security and freedom of action in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the organization is being rocked by an ideological civil war.
When it comes to theological firepower, Al Qaeda’s big guns always have been Egyptian. The most important of these is a physician/theologian named Sayyed Imam Sharif, a onetime Koranic prodigy turned Islamic militant and comrade in arms to the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri and the Saudi Osama bin Laden. According to Wright, 20 years ago Sharif wrote two books that are essentially the blueprint for what we’ve come to call jihadism, and he formerly led the murderous Egyptian terrorist group Al Jihad.
Since shortly after 9/11, Sharif has been in an Egyptian prison, where he’s now at the center of a movement that renounces violence as an instrument of reform, repenting even of the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Under the nom de guerre “Dr. Fadl,” Sharif has written a book called “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World” that essentially repudiates all Islamic justifications for Al Qaeda’s actions. In an interview, the author even called 9/11 “a catastrophe for Muslims.” These views have rocked the jihadist world and forced Zawahiri, as Al Qaeda’s chief spokesman, on the defensive.
“It’s clear,” Wright says, “that radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one that Zawahiri and the leaders of Al Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond to.” As Karam Zuhdy, leader of Egypt’s Islamic Group, a now-peaceful offshoot of the jihadist movement, recently told Wright: “Dr. Fadl’s revisions and Zawahiri’s response show that the movement is disintegrating.”
It would be all of a piece with the Bush administration’s sputtering and ineffectual engagement with the real Islamic terrorist threat — as opposed to the one it tried to conjure in Iraq — if young Islamists now found themselves inspired by the faux-martyrdom of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his accomplices. And if they are executed after tribunals involving testimony obtained by torture, in which they’ve been deprived of an adequate defense and to which the media have been granted only partial access, that’s exactly what will happen.