Khalid Sheikh Mohammed displays his PR skills.

Military analysis.
March 15 2007 2:27 PM

Confession as Propaganda

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed displays his PR skills.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Click image to expand.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed issued a fascinating confession March 10 at the beginning of his Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay. So far, attention has understandably focused on KSM's acceptance of responsibility for the 9/11 plot, as well as involvement in a host of other terrorist conspiracies, many of which failed or never came to fruition. This attention has obscured an equally fascinating part of KSM's confession: his use of the trial as a propaganda vehicle for al-Qaida.

KSM's prepared statement emphasizes what he calls "the language of war." He repeatedly argues that al-Qaida's acts, as well as his own, should be judged as a rival army or captured soldier would be judged. In doing so, he echoes a claim made by almost all modern terrorist groups: They are warriors, not murderers and criminals. KSM compares Muslim support for Osama Bin Laden with U.S. admiration for George Washington. In KSM's narrative, both fight for liberation against an oppressor.

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It is through the language of war that KSM tries to justify the killing of women and children on 9/11 and in the overall jihadist struggle. He begins his justification by conceding, "I don't like to kill children," and he notes that Islam forbids it. However, because KSM sees the terrorist acts he conducted as part of a legitimate war, he compares them to U.S. military actions. The United States, he argues, has killed and arrested the children of al-Qaida leaders, including KSM's kids, while conducting a war, and al-Qaida's murders should also be judged in this context.

Another theme that permeates KSM's statement is an attempt to discredit the detention of captured terrorists at Guantanamo. This is a more subtle jab. Here, KSM notes that many of the prisoners held there are not part of al-Qaida and that some were not even tied to the Taliban. They simply fought the Soviets and then ended up being detained by the United States years later because they were not able to return to their home countries. KSM even claims that the United States "supported me … when I was fighting Russia." Other detainees, he claims, were sent to Afghanistan by Arab governments to assassinate Bin Laden and were arrested by the Taliban. Those too, he says, ended up at Guantanamo. The implication is that the United States not only arrested the wrong people but also betrayed those it once supported.

KSM's confession has four audiences: the U.S. enemy, fellow jihadists, uncommitted Muslims, and international opinion. To the United States, he is trying to elevate al-Qaida into a worthy foe and undermine support for the Bush administration by attacking the legitimacy of U.S. claims against the organization. This appeal will fail, but he may have more success with fellow jihadists, uncommitted Muslims, and world opinion. To these audiences, his depiction of 9/11 and other attacks as acts of war rather than mass murder will find some resonance. In particular, many will accept the moral equivalence between U.S. actions in Iraq and elsewhere and the 9/11 attacks, even though the logic is strained. For those outside the jihadist community, the reaction may be "a pox on both your houses," which is not KSM's ideal outcome but also falls well short of the international outrage against al-Qaida that the United States would like to foster.

The claim that many of those at Guantanamo are innocent—or even unwitting U.S. or Arab government agents—will have some appeal. Guantanamo is widely unpopular around the world, and the failure of the United States to justify detaining people without trial for many years or to otherwise demonstrate the camp's necessity led to a sense that America is knowingly holding innocent people. The United States thus becomes both evil and ineffectual—a particularly damning combination.

KSM's use of the trial as an al-Qaida propaganda vehicle is particularly ironic because the United States also wants the tribunal to serve political as well as legal purposes. The Bush administration hopes this trial, and those of other senior al-Qaida operatives, will restore faith in America as a nation of laws and convince the world that the unusual U.S. detention program and the use of military tribunals are necessary given the magnitude of the crimes. KSM is the poster child for this approach—a truly evil man who for years plotted mass murder and on 9/11 succeeded even beyond his own expectations.

Still, we should not be surprised that KSM is trying to turn the tables on the United States. Such jujitsu is a time-honored terrorist tactic. They try to undermine the legitimacy of their enemies and sway uncommitted audiences. Violence is one tool for this, but the most successful groups constantly hone their propaganda campaigns as well.

More than five years after 9/11, the United States is rightly criticized for falling short in its effort to sway Muslims around the world. KSM's trial proves that PR remains one of al-Qaida's strengths.

Daniel Byman is the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His forthcoming book, The Five Front War, looks at the war of ideas as part of the U.S. struggle against al-Qaida.