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Terrorist Leader Confession Raises Questions

According to a just-released U.S. transcript, accused al-Qaida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammad has confessed to a leading role in at least 31 alleged terrorist plots, including the attacks of September 11, 2001. The admissions came in the transcript of a closed-door U.S. military hearing at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, Mohammad's multiple confessions raise some questions.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad says he was the foreign operations chief for Osama bin Laden and claims a key role, if not the leading one, in some 31 alleged plots around the world and spanning a decade.

But some experts believe that while Mohammad was indeed a key al-Qaida figure, they also say some of his claims are open to question and that he may be inflating his importance in some areas. In 2005, the commission that investigated the September 11 attacks noted Mohammad's sometimes extravagant ambitions and said that he liked to cast himself as a super-terrorist.

Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, who was on the Osama bin Laden counter-terrorist team in New York, says Mohammad has what he terms an enormous ego. He also notes that the transcript of the March 10 military tribunal hearing has no details of any of the alleged plots.

"Well, one of the things that strikes out at me is that of the 31 operations that he has claimed credit for, claimed credit for himself, is actually the lack of specificity," he said. "Some of the ones are obviously well known, obviously the attacks on the [World] Trade Center, both in '93 and 2001. But some of the other things he's alluding to lack specificity. Now there may be more information that was provided either to the CIA or in fact to the military interrogators. And I hope that information was disseminated."

Other counter-terrorism experts, however, are not troubled by the fact that many of the plots Mohammad alludes to never actually occurred. Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who headed the agency's hunt for bin Laden, say al-Qaida was engaging in contingency planning. He adds that while Khalid Sheikh Mohammad may have embellished somewhat, even the potential planning he outlines is a chilling indicator of al-Qaida's danger.

"I think you come away from KSM's [Khalid Sheikh Mohammad's] testimony - even if you accept maybe a quarter of it being embroidery or swagger [exaggeration] - with a very clear view of a very potent, very intelligent, very innovative enemy," he said.

Mohammad was captured in March, 2003, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, near the capital city of Islamabad. As one of the so-called high-value terrorist detainees, he was held in a network of CIA secret prisons in various countries until his transfer to Guantanamo Bay last year. On March 10, he was given what the Pentagon calls a Combatant Status Review hearing to determine if he is to be released or detained indefinitely. The hearing was closed to the media.

Mohammad himself claims to have been tortured in his CIA interrogations, but the hearing transcript that was released edited out any further comment from him in that regard.

Tom Parker, a former British counter-terrorism officer, says Mohammad's claims of his terrorist leader status could be true. But he says what kind of treatment Khalid Sheikh Mohammad received could have affected his testimony.

"We don't know what he'd been through in the last three years," he said. "But if he has been subjected to highly coercive interrogation techniques, he could be a broken man. At this point he may be entirely prepared to confess to kidnapping [the late singer] Elvis [Presley]. We just don't know."

Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer says that while Mohammad could have been mistreated, he also knows that the issue of U.S. interrogation methods has been the subject of intense political debate.

"He is an informed observer of the propaganda and public diplomacy aspects of the war between the United States, and al-Qaida and its allies," he said. "And he has exploited that with a combination of truthfulness in terms of many of the attacks we know that he was involved with that he claimed, and in terms of a really acute eye for exacerbating problems of the American government in handling people that they capture."

Analysts say that because four years has elapsed since Khalid Sheikh Mohammad's capture, any further information gleaned from interrogation would be outdated and of little use now.