A calm, deliberate Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring with Al Qaeda operatives who were involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist plot. But he defiantly vowed to “fight every inch” of the way against being put to death because, he said, he actually was recruited for a separate assault: flying a large plane into the White House.
Nevertheless, by signing a five-page, 23-paragraph statement of facts acknowledging his involvement, Moussaoui made himself subject to the death penalty when the punishment phase of his case opens later this year.
In the statement of facts, the 46-year-old French Moroccan said he came to the United States after being “personally selected” by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to attack the White House. He acknowledged that he used several aliases, including Abu Khaled al Sahrawi. And he said that Bin Laden, in encouraging him to kill Americans, told him, “Sahrawi, remember your dream.”
Moussaoui’s admissions seemed to offer new details about Al Qaeda and its plans to attack the United States. He supported the theory, widely held by anti-terrorism experts, that Bin Laden personally approved members of the teams sent to attack the United States. And he indicated that one of Al Qaeda’s goals had been to free the so-called blind sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, who is imprisoned in the U.S.
But the statement of facts also left some key questions unanswered, including whether the Al Qaeda leader had wanted to hit the White House in the same wave of attacks that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 or in a later one.
Both Moussaoui’s guilty plea and his statements about details of his case are shadowed by questions about his mental state. In the past, he has frequently made contradictory, sometimes incoherent statements, ranted against the judge and his own attorneys, and taken positions that appeared to be against his own interests.
Some analysts have suggested that Moussaoui, instead of being a trained Al Qaeda operative, may simply be a zealot -- possibly unbalanced -- who portrayed himself as playing a more important role in terrorist plots than he actually had. He was being held in a Minnesota jail when the attacks occurred; he had been arrested on immigration charges after his efforts to obtain flight training had aroused suspicions.
The questions may be resolved when the case enters the penalty phase, in which the government could be forced to reveal more of its evidence.
After Friday’s hearing, U.S. Atty. Paul J. McNulty, whose office is prosecuting Moussaoui, said it was Moussaoui’s “own desire to fly a plane into the White House.” But he said the government had never said where it believed the airliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania farm field, United Flight 93, was headed.
McNulty also said the government had no legal position on whether Moussaoui was the so-called 20th hijacker who was supposed to be inside the cockpit of that plane.
In the federal court hearing, held not far from the site where one of the hijacked planes slammed into the Pentagon, Moussaoui took the highly unusual step of pleading guilty to a capital case knowing it could send him to a federal execution chamber.
Yet U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that Moussaoui was pleading guilty “knowingly and voluntarily” and that, though acting against the advice of his court-appointed lawyers, he completely understood the consequences.
“Mr. Moussaoui is an extremely intelligent man,” she said at one point during the hourlong hearing in a seventh-floor courtroom packed with lawyers, reporters and U.S. marshals.
Looking down at the bearded, balding Moussaoui, she added, “He has actually a better understanding of the legal system than some lawyers I’ve seen in court.”
Moussaoui pleaded guilty to all six counts in the federal indictment filed against him: that he conspired to commit acts of terrorism, aircraft piracy and aircraft destruction; to use weapons of mass destruction; to murder U.S. employees and to destroy property. It is the first four charges that carry the death penalty.
Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, speaking at the Department of Justice in Washington, said his team of government lawyers looked forward to the penalty phase, where they were expected to hold Moussaoui accountable with his life for the deaths of the nearly 3,000 people killed Sept. 11, 2001. Doing that would mark the first time in the U.S. that anyone has been held responsible for the attack.
“The fact that Moussaoui participated in this terrorist plot is no longer in doubt,” Gonzales said. “In a chilling admission of guilt, Moussaoui confessed to his participation.”
Inside the courtroom, one of his lawyers, Alan H. Yamamoto, reiterated to the judge that his legal team had strongly counseled him against pleading guilty to a capital indictment. Yamamoto said he and Moussaoui debated “around in circles” what the consequences might be, and that his client nevertheless understood what he was doing.
The punishment phase of the case, expected to be heard before a 12-member jury in Alexandria, Va., is likely to be a hard-fought and emotion-charged battle.
The government could bring survivors and families of those killed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon into the courtroom to tell of their losses on that horrible morning.
But Moussaoui’s defense lawyers may call into question his competency. Psychiatric evaluations have been made of his mental health, but the findings have not been made public.
Furthermore, the government may find jurors reluctant to pronounce death for Moussaoui for fear that it would make him a martyr and inspire other terrorists to attack America. That is what jurors said after handing out life sentences in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
A third obstacle for the government -- and perhaps most important -- is that Moussaoui was already behind bars on Sept. 11.
He was arrested in August 2001, after trying to take flight lessons in Minnesota. The flight instructor alerted the FBI after becoming bothered by Moussaoui’s bizarre behavior, especially his insistence on only learning how to take off and land a Boeing 747, and he alerted the FBI.
The government has since theorized that Al Qaeda dropped him from the Sept. 11 plot because he was acting irrationally, attracting attention to himself and thus threatening to blow the cover of the other 19 hijackers.
In the statement of facts, which Moussaoui acknowledged the government would have proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” at trial, he offered some new details about the events leading up to Sept. 11.
He acknowledged that an Al Qaeda associate provided him with information about U.S. flight schools and that in September 2000, while in Malaysia, he e-mailed the Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla.
After training in knife fighting in Afghanistan, he traveled in February 2001 from London to Chicago, and then on to Oklahoma. There he trained on small planes and by that summer an Al Qaeda associate directed him to start learning how to fly “larger jet planes.”
Also in Oklahoma, he joined a gym and bought knives. He “selected certain knives because they had blades short enough to get past airport security,” the statement of facts said.
Moussaoui said in signing the statement that in early August 2001, an Al Qaeda operative with the alias Ahad Sabet wired him money from Germany to pay for more flight training. Moussaoui then moved to Minnesota.
Upon his arrest on Aug. 16, 2001, he was found in possession of two knives, flight manuals for a Boeing 747-400, a flight computer program, fighting gloves and shin guards, and a piece of paper referring to a hand-held global positioning system device. He also had a hand-held aviation radio and software for reviewing pilot procedures for the jet.
Moussaoui, after pleading guilty, spoke about why he was preparing for a possible attack on the White House with the Boeing 747-400, a long-range, high-capacity airliner.
He indicated that the plan had centered on an attempt to free Rahman, who is in a U.S. prison on terrorism-related charges. The plan was apparently to fly Rahman to Afghanistan on a “long-distance plane without any stopover to give a chance to Special Forces to storm the plane.” If the U.S. government refused to free Rahman, Moussaoui said, he then planned to crash the plane into the White House.
He also told the judge that he still wanted to call several other terrorism captives to testify on his behalf at the penalty phase so they could tell the jury he was not a Sept. 11 participant. He strongly objected to a compromise plan between the government and his lawyers that would permit only written statements from the captives that were gleaned from interrogations.
Only one of these possible witnesses has been officially identified: Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected mastermind in the Sept. 11 attacks who is in custody at an undisclosed location.
Holding up a white sheet of paper before the judge, Moussaoui mocked that idea, saying, “They want to have a CIA piece of paper in front of the jury.”
He also sharply criticized his lawyers who believed he was mentally incompetent. “Moussaoui crazy! Moussaoui crazy!” he said and shook his hands in the air, mocking their past statements. But, he added, was he “crazy trying to defend his life?”
Several times the judge tried to cut him off, clearly concerned that his statements about hitting the White House and other plans could be used against him in the punishment phase.
But Moussaoui stuck to his position that no jury could sentence him to die for one crime -- Sept. 11 -- when he had actually been recruited for another offense. “Everyone knows I’m not 9/11,” he said.
To most observers, he seemed to be using the odd distinction to make two points: He would fight against the death penalty because suicide is viewed as wrongful under Islamic law. And he would preserve his honor as an Al Qaeda warrior because, though he denied a role in Sept. 11, he nevertheless expressed willingness to carry out the White House mission.
Indeed, as he was being led away at the hearing’s end, he screamed, “God curse America!”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Conspirator Confirms Al Qaeda Details
FACTS FROM THE CASE
As part of his guilty plea in U.S. District Court, defendant Zacarias Moussaoui accepted a five-page statement of facts. He agreed that, if the case were to go to trial, the government would prove its 23 points beyond a reasonable doubt. Here are some of those points:
* Osama bin Laden personally approved those selected to participate in the operation, who were willing to die trying to further their religious beliefs and Al Qaeda’s agenda.
* Moussaoui knew of Al Qaeda’s plan to fly airplanes into prominent buildings in the U.S. and he agreed to travel to the U.S. to participate in the plan. Bin Laden selected Moussaoui to participate in the operation to fly planes into American buildings and approved a plot for Moussaoui to attack the White House. Bin Laden told Moussaoui: “Sahrawi, remember your dream.”
* An Al Qaeda associate provided Moussaoui with information about U.S. flight schools. In September 2000, Moussaoui, who was in Malaysia, contacted the Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., via e-mail. Moussaoui intended to use his pilot training to further Al Qaeda’s plan to use planes to kill Americans.
* Moussaoui trained in knife fighting in Afghanistan.
* On February 23, 2001, Moussaoui traveled from London to Chicago and then on to Norman, Okla., where he received training as a pilot. At the Airman Flight School, Moussaoui was trained to pilot small planes. In summer 2001, an Al Qaeda associate directed Moussaoui to attend training for larger jet planes.
* While in Oklahoma, Moussaoui joined a gym and bought knives. Moussaoui selected certain knives because they had blades short enough to get past airport security.
* In early August 2001, an Al Qaeda conspirator using the alias Ahad Sabet wire transferred money from Germany to Moussaoui in Oklahoma so Moussaoui could receive additional flight training.
* In August 2001, Moussaoui traveled to Minnesota, where he trained on a Boeing 747-400 simulator at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan. Moussaoui told an Al Qaeda associate that he would complete simulator training before September 2001.
* On August 16, 2001, Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota by FBI and Immigration agents. At the time of his arrest, Moussaoui possessed: two knives; flight manuals for the Boeing 747-400; a flight simulator computer program; fighting gloves and shin guards; a piece of paper referring to a hand-held global positioning system; software that could be used to review pilot procedures for the Boeing 747-400 and a hand-held aviation radio.
* After his arrest, Moussaoui lied to federal agents to allow others in Al Qaeda to go forward with the operation to fly planes into American buildings. Specifically, Moussaoui falsely denied being a member of a terrorist organization and falsely denied that he was taking pilot training to kill Americans. Instead, Moussaoui told federal agents that he was training as a pilot purely for his personal enjoyment and that, after completion of his training, he intended to visit New York and Washington as a tourist.