By Senior investigative producer
NBC News
updated 3/15/2007 1:24:13 PM ET 2007-03-15T17:24:13

Everyone remembers the picture: Khalid Sheik Mohammed, mastermind of Sept. 11, looking not like the “James Bond of al-Qaida ” but more like someone shaken out of bed in the middle of the night, hair disheveled, his T-shirt stained, forlorn and knowing his fate. In short, a nervous wreck.

But just what happened that night that led to the famous picture?

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials tell NBC News that the March 1, 2003, capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, or KSM as he is known in the spy world, was one of the CIA’s biggest coups in the past decade, one that relied not on satellite photos or electronic eavesdropping but on the cultivation of a spy, a Muslim who wanted to help because of his anger over Sept. 11.

Driven by religious duty
It is a tale that includes a lucky break, clandestine signals in the night, tossed food trays, a meandering ride through the streets of an old Silk Road trading post and a secret meeting presided over by the director of the CIA. 

The CIA had recruited the spy as an "asset" and used him increasingly after 9/11.  A Pakistani Muslim, he had one overriding reason to risk his life.

“He told us [the CIA]he hated the 9/11 hijackers because he believed they had killed innocents in violation of the Quran. It was his religious duty,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

And he hated no one more than Osama bin Laden and his top operations man, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. 

Revered symbol, killer of Daniel Pearl
In the months after 9/11, KSM had become a revered symbol in the world of Islamic fundamentalists.  It was KSM who conceived the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., with their use of suicide pilots and heavily loaded aircraft. It was KSM as well who had beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in May 2002, and then just before the first anniversary of the videotaped killing sat for an interview in silhouette with al-Jazeera to brag about what he had done. Some admirers in fact did refer to KSM as “al-Qaida’s James Bond,” adoring him as a mythic, untouchable figure. His exploits won him praise on Islamic Web sites as well as on street corners and desert firesides.

His assistant and 9/11 cell organizer in Hamburg, Germany, Ramzi Bin al Shibh, had been grabbed on Sept. 11, 2002, exactly a year after the 9/11 attacks, following a firefight at an apartment building in Karachi, Pakistan. U.S. officials believed KSM was at the same location, but later conceded he had either escaped or was never there to begin with.

A 'meeting with bad guys'
By Spring 2003, there were reports that KSM was in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area. It was an odd place to hide. Islamabad is the 50-year-old capital of Pakistan, while Rawalpindi, the Silk Road trading post nearby, is where Pakistan’s army headquarters is located.  Most of bin Laden’s top associates had fled to Pakistan, but Islamabad and Rawalpindi were crawling with Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials. Indeed, the CIA station in Islamabad is among the world’s largest.  

The Muslim spy was not on the hunt for KSM when events suddenly put his life on a different track. A second former U.S. intelligence official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the spy had been able to ingratiate himself with al-Qaida supporters in Pakistan and was "meeting with bad guys" in Rawalpindi when he was told he would find himself in the company of a high-ranking al-Qaida official. The official turned out to be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. 

The moment they had waited for
That night, the spy was one of four al-Qaida members, including TSM, in a car winding its way through the streets of Rawalpindi. He knew that if his identity were blown, he would be beheaded on the spot in the same way as Pearl. The driver dropped off KSM at a house in one of the city's affluent neighborhoods — one where retired Pakistani generals lived in seclusion — and then the spy quickly went to work.

“Once he was free, he had a prearranged signal to alert his handlers that he had left KSM,” said one of the former intelligence officials. "He used it.”  None of the officials NBC News spoke with would reveal the signal.

Once he gave the signal, all hell broke loose back at the building where CIA officers had gathered for a late dinner.  “Food trays literally started flying around the room,” said the other former intelligence official. “People began scrambling, knowing that this was the moment they had waited for.”

But there was a problem.

A raid almost gone bad
The spy was unfamiliar with the neighborhood where KSM had been dropped off and it was dark. Over the next few hours, he and his CIA handlers frantically cruised the city, trying to find the house, backtracking from familiar reference points he had tried to make mental notes of earlier in the evening.

“They drove around for hours, ultimately finding the house where he believed KSM was sleeping,” said one of the former officials.

“By now, it was early morning. It was time to call in the Pakistanis.”

The house turned out to be that of Ahmed Abdul Qudoos, who was believed to be an al-Qaida supporter. At around 4 a.m., a large contingent of Pakistani security forces raided the home. And although portrayed at the time as uneventful, the officials say the raid almost went badly. The United States desperately wanted KSM alive, but he had been awakened by the raid and grabbed his gun, ready for a gunfight that could have easily led to his death. As a Pakistani security officer barged into his bedroom, the gun went off, wounding the officer in the foot.  KSM was quickly subdued, photographed for posterity and then whisked away, first to a Pakistani interrogation center and later to an undisclosed U.S. interrogation center somewhere overseas, where he sits today.

The raid’s success did not end there. Also grabbed that night was a man who was traveling with KSM, one whose importance was not known for hours.  He turned out to be Mustapha Ahmed, the paymaster of the 9/11 attacks and, as it turned out, someone who regularly traveled with KSM.  It was — and is — the CIA’s biggest victory in the war on terrorism.

Intelligence quickly learned that al-Qaida immediately suspected the one man in the car they did not know that well, and the CIA quickly moved to get their spy out of Pakistan.  The next week, Tenet went to the region and met personally with the man to honor him and the CIA agents who had participated in the operation — and to reward the Muslim financially.

A new suit and a secret meeting
The man had just bought his first suit with the help of CIA officers for his meeting with the CIA director. According to the former U.S. officials, Tenet asked him the obvious question: Why did you do this?  Why did you risk your life?

The officials recounted their conversation like this:

“My religion doesn’t support this killing,” the man told Tenet, adding that he wanted these people “brought to justice.”

He asked Tenet, "Do you think the president [Bush] knows what I did?"  Tenet smiled and responded: "He knows because I told him."

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