BOOK REVIEW: “Mastermind: The Many Faces of the 9/11 Architect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed,” by Richard Miniter

It’s not that I don’t care about matters of national security. In fact, I view the issue of the country’s ongoing safety as the #1 prerogative of our country’s leadership, regardless of political party. I have not, however, typically chosen to include books on the War on Terror in my ongoing repertoire of “Must Reads.” That pattern received a merited adjustment last week after I listened to Richard Miniter introduce his newest literary endeavor, Mastermind: The Many Faces of the 9/11 Architect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, at the Heritage Foundation Bloggers’ Briefing.

Most of us are familiar with the disheveled photo of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) that was snapped immediately following his midnight ambush by police forces at his apartment safe house in Pakistan in March 2003. It is a safe guess to assume that the bulk of my fellow citizens, even those who keep pace with current events, have subconsciously adopted the narrative I had entertained: Why would I care to know anything about such a heinous murderer, other than that he’s receiving his just recompense?

Mastermind answers that question, and then some. In this volume, Richard Miniter combines the investigative reporting skills he has honed over an award-winning journalistic career with a novelist’s suspense tactics. In the process, he produces a riveting portrait of a venomous, yet complicated character.

Miniter begins his narrative in the 1950s, when KSM’s father, Shaikh Mohammed, first settled in the Kuwait oil settlement of Fahaheel. Here, we are granted a behind-the-scenes look at the trajectory of smoldering resentment on which a young KSM was launched, virtually from birth. The twin circumstances of an upbringing as a member of a distinctly second-class minority group, combined with the rampant popularity of radical Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, significantly impacted KSM’s early years.

I had no idea until I listened to Miniter’s presentation last week that KSM attended not just one, but two American universities…both in North Carolina. We learn that rather than succumbing to the allure of American freedoms, KSM’s antipathy towards Western civilization only deepened, partially due to the aid and comfort of fellow Muslim area “mullahs.” Repeated run-ins with the American courts, due to traffic violations (KSM was a horrible driver) further embittered KSM, while also schooling him in the reality that he could, if he planned it cleverly enough, exploit the same US legal system he so detested for his own gains.

Miniter’s coverage of the ensuing decade and a half spans the multiple terrorist plots hatched by KSM’s reprehensibly fertile imagination. We go behind the scenes of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, (unsuccessful) schemes against both President Clinton and Pope John Paul II, the masterminding of the 9/11 attacks, the murder of Daniel Pearl and multiple other atrocities. The service that Miniter provides for us along the way is a portrayal of the scope of KSM’s murderous rampages. It was under KSM’s tutelage that large-scale terrorist attacks transpired that killed hundreds, rather than dozens of innocent civilians. By the time KSM is captured, we are silently applauding the toppling of a lethal menace.

The final section of Mastermind is simultaneously compelling and dispiriting. Although over eight years have elapsed since his detainment, KSM has yet to be brought to justice for his crimes against humanity. Miniter discloses the contributing factors to this milieu. In 2006, a momentous Supreme Court decision (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) severely curtailed the ability of our military tribunals to adequately prosecute enemy combatants. Since 2009, the US Department of Justice, piloted by current Attorney General Eric Holder, has dithered and stalled, rather than doubling down and ensuring that KSM is punished. And along the way, a vacuous debate has emerged over “torture” of enemy combatants who have, without a twinge of remorse, brutally slaughtered thousands of innocents.

Mastermind is meticulously footnoted, with pages of painstakingly documented detail, yet it also manages to be spellbinding. Richard Miniter is a gifted wordsmith who employs conviction and passion, laced with precise logic, to gripping effect. One cannot read this book and remain unaffected by the piercing saga it entails of one man who has left in his wake an indelible imprint of chilling mayhem that will be with us for generations.



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