ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Defense attorneys for Zacarias Moussaoui wrapped up their case Tuesday by using two high-ranking al-Qaida operatives to rebut their own client’s claim that he was to fly a jetliner into the White House as part of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The leaders of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group cast doubt on whether Moussaoui was part of 9/11, one portraying him as a misfit who refused to follow orders.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema set Wednesday afternoon for closing arguments on whether the actions Moussaoui has admitted make him eligible for the death penalty. The jury must decide whether the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent – the only man charged in this country in the 9/11 plot – will be executed or imprisoned for life.
Tuesday’s proceedings were quite unusual for an American courtroom: Defense attorneys – appointed by the court to represent a client who despises them – tried to undermine the defendant’s own bombshell testimony of Monday using witnesses who were not present or seen in the courtroom, primarily because the government refused to allow captured al-Qaida members to appear for national security reasons.
Testimony from five al-Qaida members was read to the jury as defense attorneys tried to undo damage Moussaoui might have done to his case when he testified against their advice.
One terrorist, identified as Sayf al-Adl, a senior member of al-Qaida’s military committee and close aide to bin Laden, stated sometime between Sept. 1, 2001, and late July 2004, that Moussaoui was “a confirmed jihadist, but was absolutely not going to take part in the Sept. 11, 2001 mission.”
The 9/11 Commission reported the U.S. recovered a letter written by al-Adl from a safehouse in Pakistan. The letter described the various candidates considered for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Another top terrorist witness – Waleed bin Attash, known as Khallad – is considered the mastermind of the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole and an early planner of the Sept. 11 plot. He said he knew of no part that Moussaoui was to have played in the 9/11 attacks. Khallad was captured in April 2003.
Their testimony supports that of another captive, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief organizer of the 9/11 attacks. He said in testimony read Monday that Moussaoui had nothing to do with the 9/11 plot, but was to have been part of a later wave of attacks distinct from Sept. 11.
Moussaoui said for the first time Monday that he was supposed to pilot a fifth plane in the 9/11 plot. For three years, he had denied having any role in 9/11. He had said his White House attack was planned for later if the U.S. refused to release radical Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, imprisoned for other terrorist crimes.
Mostly the testimony of al-Qaida operatives was compiled from statements made during U.S. interrogations of captives. The captives themselves have never spoken to either defense attorneys or prosecutors in this case, because prosecutors prevailed in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over the defense’s request to question these witnesses live in court, or at least on videotape.
Khallad portrayed Moussaoui as a loose cannon during a trip to Malaysia in 2000, where members of a radical group affiliated with al-Qaida had agreed to help him get flight training. Khallad said Moussaoui breached security measures, spurned the local flight schools and proposed outlandish plots to raise money, including kidnapping prominent Chinese businessmen for ransom.
For example, Moussaoui called Khallad daily, despite instructions to call only in an emergency. Khallad turned his cell phone off in exasperation.
Another al-Qaida captive, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who served as a paymaster and facilitator for the Sept. 11 operation from his post in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said he had seen Moussaoui at an al-Qaida guesthouse in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the first half of 2001, but was never introduced to him nor conducted any operations with him.
Al-Hawsawi said he provided money and tickets to four of the Sept. 11 hijackers and to a fifth man, identified as Muhammed al-Qahtani, who was denied entry to the United States before Sept. 11 in Orlando, Fla.
In the written statement, Al-Hawsawi quoted Shaikh Mohammed as describing al-Qahtani as the last hijacker for the mission who would “complete the group.” It appeared al-Qahtani was the so-called missing 20th hijacker of Sept. 11, a role the government initially thought Moussaoui was to have played had he not been arrested in August 2001.
Also Tuesday, defense attorney Alan Yamamoto read portions of the joint 9/11 report by the Senate and House intelligence committees. The panel said that before 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community produced 12 reports between 1994 and 2001 “suggesting that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons.” Later, the defense played videotape of then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top officials telling the 9/11 Commission they had no inkling al-Qaida had considered using airplanes as missiles.
This combination supported the defense theory the government knew more about 9/11 beforehand than Moussaoui, but ignored or bungled leads that might have unraveled the plot. They say the Fifth Amendment protected Moussaoui from having to incriminate himself by revealing anything he knew when arrested.
To get a death penalty, prosecutors must prove some act of Moussaoui’s led directly to at least one of the nearly 3,000 deaths on 9/11. They contend that act was his lying to FBI agents upon arrest, which prosecutors claim prevented the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration from identifying the hijackers and keeping them off airplanes on 9/11.
Yamamoto also read a summary of three FAA intelligence reports from the late 1990s and 2000 that concluded a hijacked airliner could be flown into a building or national landmark in the U.S. However, this was “viewed as an option of last resort.”
The FAA had reports that bin Laden had discussed hijacking a U.S. jetliner as part of a plot to free Sheik Rahman but concluded that crashing a jetliner into a building was an unlikely option because it offered little time to negotiate.