National Press Club

Author gets break on Sept. 11 investigation over beer at FBI retirement party

April 13, 2012 | By Eleanor Herman |

Joshua Meyer, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist formerly with the Los Angeles Times, took a rapt National Press Club audience into the classified world of counterterrorism, espionage, and U.S. government attempts to capture the most dangerous man in the world at an April 11 book rap.

In "The Hunt for KSM, Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of The Real 911 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," Meyer details the dogged pursuit of two agents who chased the terrorist from five years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks until his 2003 arrest.

Mohammed first appeared in the FBI cross hairs after the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, which he helped finance. But there wasn’t a huge agency-wide effort to find him.

“Before 911, counter-terrorism was a backwater for the FBI,” Meyer said, “as it resulted in few arrests and involved a great deal of overseas travel.”

That changed dramatically after Sept. 11. But while Osama bin Laden was thought to have organized the attacks on Washington and New York, U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t know that the real mastermind was Mohammed until April 2002.

Meyer first heard of the FBI’s interest in Mohammed as the architect of the 9/11 attacks at an FBI retirement event, when one agent, after Meyer bought him a few beers, gave him the name, which Meyer wrote down on a cocktail napkin.

“Usually it’s just dumb luck,” Meyer said of his success in ferreting out classified information.

Mohammed was also behind the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, in his 2001 attempt to blow up an airliner, a failed 1995 plot to blow up 12 airliners the same day, bombings in Bali and Tunisia and many other plots.

“KSM recruited ‘clean skins,’often Caucasian converts to Islam with no criminal record,” Meyer said. He added that the greatest danger isn’t a monolithic organization like Al Qaeda, but creative individuals like Mohammed.

“There have been no new major attacks because there are no people like KSM plotting them,” he said.

Captured in Pakistan on March 1, 2003, Mohammed is currently in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial for terrorism and the mass murder of civilians. He was frequently subjected to enhanced interrogation – waterboarding – to get him to talk about plans for additional attacks.

“The CIA contractors who did the interrogation didn’t know what to ask KSM,” Meyer said. “He sent the FBI on wild goose chases around the world and thought it was hilarious.”

Due to the U.S. government’s bungled interrogations, “a lot of important information that should have come out at the time didn’t and it could have saved lives,” Meyer said.

Meyer discussed his love of reporting -- “being out in the world and getting people to tell me things they are not supposed to tell me.”

He conducted more than 100 interviews for the book, with law enforcement officials, jihadis and members of Mohammed's family and support network.

“I didn’t have gray hair when I started this book,” he quipped.

The author was introduced by Joe Motheral, chairman of the Book and Author Committee.