All the world's a stage to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and four other co-defendants being tried by a war crimes military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. Unlike President-elect Barack Obama, Mohammed and his alleged partners in crime don't seem to want the facility closed any time soon. Why would they? Gitmo's devastating impact on America's image and moral standing abroad has done so much to advance their jihadi cause.
Rather than focus on Al Qaeda's devastating strikes and bloody deeds, the world has been riveted on America's torture and earlier mistreatment of the detention center's detainees, the lack of due process in their trials, and the flaunting of such basic rights of the American criminal justice system as habeas corpus.
But all of that negative publicity was being jeopardized by Obama's pledge to close the facility and perhaps transfer the defendants to America's criminal justice system for trial. So on Monday, as relatives of some of the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001 looked on, Mohammed stunned the tribunal by telling the military judge, U.S. Army Col. Stephen Henley, that he and the others want to confess immediately. This, say legal and terrorism analysts, would obviate the need for prolonged trails, set up likely guilty pleas and possibly set the stage for their executions. And in the perverse psychology of militant Islam, it would expedite their elevation as martyrs for Islam –- in their eyes, yet another propaganda victory.
Matthew Waxman, once the Pentagon's point person and internal critic of the administration's detention policies who now teaches at Columbia Law School, says that unfortunately, Mohammed and the other detainees have been winning the global battle of perceptions thanks largely to American missteps. "For the U.S. government, prosecuting Guantanamo detainees has always been about more than dispensing justice in individual cases," he wrote in an e-mail. "It's also been meant to communicate to the world about Al Qaeda's atrocities." But till now, he adds, "it's the U.S. system of detention, interrogation and military commissions that have been on trial before the court of world opinion more than the suspected terrorists and their actions."
The military commission seems unwilling to play Mohammed's game. Army Col. Stephen Henley, the Gitmo judge, said on Monday that two of the defendants would not be permitted to confess or file pleas until they were judged competent to stand trial. So Mohammed postponed his plea until all the defendants could act together.
Citing an "ongoing case," Brooke Anderson, a spokesperson for the transition team, declined on Monday to comment on Mohammed's announced intentions. This gives the incoming Obama administration a chance to plot its own strategy and hopefully, to find a way to deny the 9/11 plotters and supporters of terrorism the propaganda victory they seek.