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07/11/2013

Al Qaeda's Power Vacuum: Our Man in Guantanamo


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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, aka KSM, after his 2003 capture.   ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

What to do with a senior Al Qaeda leader after he has been waterboarded 183 times in secret CIA custody?

Get him to design a vacuum cleaner, of course.

Just when you think you've read enough wacky-things-terrorists-do stories (the towering Osama bin Laden strolling his compound in a cowboy hat, the one-eyed Algerian Moktar Belomoktar's disdain for Al Qaeda's expense forms), the Associated Press' Adam Goldman brings us this scoop about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's very secret vacuum design.

It seems - according to an account by an unnamed senior CIA official - that the CIA allowed KSM, the self-professed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, to design his own vacuum cleaner while imprisoned in Romania about a decade ago.

The engineering project was a way to "undo the psychological damage inflicted on the detainees" during their interrogations, Goldman reported.

"We didn't want them to go nuts," the former senior CIA official told The AP.

KSM got Snickers bars if he was good and read Harry Potter, which incidentally was also a favourite book of many detainees in Guantanamo, where KSM is imprisoned now and being tried before the military commissions for the 9/11 attacks.

Was Graham Greene's, "Our Man in Havana," about the vacuum salesman who works for Britain's spy service, MI6, on his reading list too? "The AP was unable to determine whether Mohammed ever read the famous novel," Goldman reports and later dryly adds: "It's unlikely (KSM) was able to take his appliance plans to Cuba."

Apparently KSM also held "office hours" to lecture CIA officers about his past over tea and cookies. This is the easiest scenario to imagine as KSM loves to hold court  - something I've witnessed during his military commission hearings in Guantanamo. One memorable moment came last October when he was allowed to address the military judge directly, beginning, "My only advice to you is that you do not get affected by crocodile tears.." and on he went. He later publicly corrected the court translator who was relaying the hearings to him in Arabic.

Who knows exactly how KSM, who is known for his intellect, has spent the last ten years? We may never know as Guantanamo lawyers are pretty much barred from saying anything about their clients. Remember Guantanamo's classified cats?

KSM's military lawyer, Jason Wright said this to Goldman: "It sounds ridiculous, but answering this question, or confirming or denying the very existence of a vacuum cleaner design, a Swiffer design, or even a design for a better hand towel would apparently expose the U.S. government and its citizens to exceptionally grave danger." 

Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm

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