March 15, 2007 -- Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the world's most accomplished terrorist or is he just a complete liar? Or both?
Since the suspected 9/11 mastermind confessed to 31 attacks, as well as plots to kill Pope John Paul II, Presidents Clinton and Carter, to use biological weapons such as anthrax, and to bomb targets around the world from Panama and Pakistan to South Korea and Seattle, some of his claims have come under doubt.
Several counterterrorism experts and former intelligence officials believe that Mohammed, who made the mass confession during a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, is a fabulist. Their reasons: the lack of evidence to implicate him in many of these plots and his reputation as a self-aggrandizing egotist.
"I get a sense that his ego was enormous, and that he would take credit for anything and everything," said Jack Cloonan, an ABC News analyst and former senior agent on the FBI's bin Laden squad who investigated Mohammed. "What's missing is the evidence and details about the plots -- the fact that he can't provide that shows that he is in lying mode."
Among the claims that provoked skepticism in Cloonan were previously unknown plots to attack U.S. military bases in South Korea and to assassinate President Carter.
Other plots, which Mohammed discussed but for which there is no apparent evidence of his involvement, are the Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 180 in 2002 and shoe bomber Richard Reid's plan to blow up two planes in 2001.
One confession backed by evidence is Mohammed's claim that he killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2003. In his testimony, Mohammed brags that "For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head." And in the execution video, identifying marks on the hand of the masked man holding Pearl's head match those on Mohammed's hands, U.S. officials told ABC News.
It's difficult to understand Mohammed's motives, but they could range from a desire to avoid torture to loyalty to his cohorts in al Qaeda to his ambition to go down in history as a holy warrior, to an active imagination.
"He's following that old baseball adage -- taking one for the club," says Cloonan. "He understands that when he goes on trial, he will be executed. Having faced that, he sees himself as a holy warrior, and we've given him a stage in an anointing that he doesn't deserve.
Mohammed has a reputation for extravagant claims. The 9/11 Commission said that his vision was "theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast star, the superterrorist."
'Surprised He Didn't Take Responsibility for JFK'
The lack of evidence -- and the apparent failure of Mohammed to answer lingering questions about the 9/11 plot -- sowed doubts in the mind of Robert Baer, a former CIA agent who was based in the Middle East.
"Here's the problem: We have no corroborating evidence," says Baer, who believes that Mohammed's confessions are tainted, since he was reportedly tortured while in custody. "If the interrogators are leading him, and he decides that that's the narrative that's wanted, he might follow it."
According to Baer, the FBI was contacted soon after Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in March 2003. "The FBI people I talked to said they wouldn't touch him. His information is tainted -- if it was brought before a jury, an impartial judge would throw it out and KSM would be out on the streets, somewhere in Philadelphia."
One of Baer's concerns is that there is no indication that Mohammed turned anybody in to U.S. authorities. "There is insider info that should be in a document and that should have led to arrests."
There are lingering questions that remain unanswered for Baer: Who recruited the 15 Saudi terrorists on 9/11? Who funded the plot? Did Mohammed name the Qatari prince who protected him when he fled to that country? Did he name the [Pakistani intelligence agency] ISI officers he probably met?
"He has the hallmarks of a fabricator," says Baer. "Anybody who's desperate, you see a certain amount of desperation."
The 26-page transcript of Mohammed's hearing seemed to raise more questions than it answered.
"I'm surprised that he didn't take responsibility for killing JFK," says Cloonan. "That he was actually on the grassy knoll."