Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the man accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago, remains behind bars awaiting trial, but a retired FBI agent who had been investigating him in the 1990s, says decades later that he is still tortured by the thought that the terrorist could have been stopped years before the devastating 2001 events.
"His name comes up in my head every day and it's not a pleasant thought," the former agent Frank Pellegrino commented, reports the BBC. "Time helps heal things. But it is what it is ... he was my guy."
Pellegrino had already been pursuing Mohammed for years when he saw the television reports of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and told the BBC that his first thought was "my God, it's got to be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed."
According to the 9/11 Commission, even though Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader at the time, became the person most closely associated with the attacks, Mohammed was the "principal architect" who devised the plan itself.
Mohammed was born in Kuwait and studied in the United States before fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Pellegrino, though, had been on his trail since the time of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
The retired agent says he realized Mohammed's ambitions in 1995 when the terrorist was involved in a plot to blow up international airliners, and that he almost caught him in the 1990s after tracking him to Qatar.
He said he and a team went to Oman and had a plane ready to bring Mohammed back but U.S. diplomats resisted, even after Pellegrino went to Qatar and told the ambassador and embassy officials that there was an indictment for him for the plot on the airliners.
The ambassador eventually told Pellegrino that officials from Qatar had claimed that Mohammed was lost.
The retired agent admits that, at that time, Mohammed wasn't seen as a key target.
"I was told there are too many terrorists in there already," he said of his efforts to get Mohammed on the U.S. Top Ten Most Wanted list.
During the years between then and the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed went to bin Laden with his idea of training terrorists to fly planes into targets, and Pellegrino told the BBC that "when we found out he was the guy, there was nobody more miserable than me."
Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan in 2003, and Pellegrino said he hoped the terrorist would at least stand trial under the earlier indictment.
But instead, the CIA took Mohammed to a "black site," where he was waterboarded at least 183 times and was subjected to other extreme interrogation techniques, resulting in his confession to several plots. A Senate report later found that he'd made up much of what he told the CIA.
Mohammed was moved, along with other key detainees, to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006, and in Jan. 2007, Pellegrino spoke with him in person.
"I wanted to let him know I'd been involved in indicting him in the 90s," said Pellegrino. He didn't disclose details of their conversation, but described Mohammed as a "very engaging guy with a sense of humor."
He also described Mohammed as being almost like a "Kardashian" in how he wants attention but said he shows no remorse for the 9/11 attacks or his other actions.
"I certainly think he's OK with what he did, but he likes the show," said Pellegrino.
Meanwhile, Mohammed, 20 years later, still has not faced trial. There are hearings this week, but his attorney, David Nevin, says they are timed to show the media something is taking place as the 9/11 anniversary approaches and he expects it will take 20 more years for the trial to wrap up.
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