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Moussaoui Called a Bad Pilot, but Determined to Fly

Times Staff Writer

He never could fly right.

In practice sessions with his instructor, Zacarias Moussaoui couldn’t keep the plane level. He was bad at banking, always turning the plane too sharply. When they entered a heavy traffic pattern, he would tense up. He wouldn’t focus.

His instructors told him that he was a disaster, that he never would fly. And yet when he was arrested by the FBI and suspected of being a terrorist, he grew angry and kept telling the agents over and over to hurry their investigation “because I’ve got to get back to flight school.”

Moussaoui, 37, is on trial for his life in U.S. District Court here. On Thursday, the prosecution focused on his last six months of freedom -- from his failed attempts to master the cockpit at an Oklahoma flight school to his August 2001 apprehension in Minnesota and the FBI’s desperate attempts to determine what he was up to.

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They were just about to start figuring some of that out on Sept. 10. But by then it was too late.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty last year to being part of the conspiracy that culminated in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. A jury will decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison or put to death.

Shohaib Nazir Kassam, his flight instructor at Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., liked Moussaoui, he told the court -- but he also knew that the French citizen of Moroccan descent just didn’t have the right stuff.

“He was a not a very good student. Just below average,” Kassam testified. “He couldn’t maintain basic aircraft control.”

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Kassam added, “I didn’t succeed with Zack.”

Most students solo after 15 hours of practice with an instructor. Between February and May 2001, Moussaoui had 57 hours of instruction, and still was not ready to go it alone.

He began sending e-mails to flight schools around the country, trying to find another program that would accept him.

“My dream is to fly one of these big birds,” he wrote one school.

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He told another he wanted to learn how to fly “from JFK to Heathrow” -- from New York to London. “After all we are in America and everything is possible,” he wrote.

In August Moussaoui arrived at that school, the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., saying he wanted to learn to fly a Boeing 747.

In his testimony Thursday, instructor Clarence “Clancy” Prevost said that in six lessons on a flight simulator, a student could learn how to handle such a plane, whose controls in flight are largely computerized.

Out of the simulator and into the cockpit, Prevost said, “he could have flown a 747.”

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Prevost said that he, too, liked Moussaoui -- but that there was something odd about him.

For instance, he asked absurd questions: Could the cabin doors be opened after they were pressurized and the plane was aloft?

And he had paid the enrollment fee -- about $6,800 -- in $100 bills.

“I personally thought this was a guy who had too much money, and I thought he was just filling a dream and playing at it,” Prevost said.

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Still, his suspicions were enough for the school to call the FBI.

Special Agent Harry Samit testified that Moussaoui was arrested on Aug. 16 for overstaying his visa.

When Samit first saw him, clad in a T-shirt, cargo pants and a baseball cap, “he seemed just like an American.”

But Samit works in the bureau’s joint terror task force in Minnesota, and he too was suspicious. First, Moussaoui wouldn’t consent to have his personal belongings searched. Second, agents found a small dagger in his left pocket and a flip-open knife under the seat in his car.

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He was questioned several times -- in front of his motel near the flight school, and again at an immigration detention center. Each time he would yell at the agents. “He was very eager to clear things up to get back to his flight training,” Samit said.

The agents asked for a criminal investigative search warrant to open several bags, backpacks and suitcases, as well as a computer laptop, that Moussaoui had kept at the motel. FBI headquarters denied the request, saying there didn’t seem to be enough evidence against him.

Samit wanted to get a search warrant from a federal intelligence surveillance court, but headquarters in Washington refused that request as well.

By this time, Moussaoui had requested an immigration lawyer; agents could no longer interrogate him. That left one last shot -- to win an immigration court order deporting him to France, a measure that would immediately allow the FBI to open Moussaoui’s bags.

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“We received authority to do that on the afternoon of Sept. 10,” Samit said.

The next morning two passenger jets slammed into New York’s World Trade Center. A third hit the Pentagon. A fourth crashed into a western Pennsylvania field.

Samit and his agents rushed to Moussaoui’s bags and pulled them open. They found more knives, as well as 747 operating manuals, boxing gloves, shin guards and binoculars that Samit said “can be used by a pilot for target recognition.”

That made Samit think of one of the few things Moussaoui did tell him: After flight school, he was going to take a tour of the United States, particularly to visit landmark buildings in New York and Washington.

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“He said he was going to see the Empire State [Building] and the White House,” Samit recalled.

Moussaoui’s failure to disclose during his initial questioning that he was involved in a terrorist plot prompted Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to rebuke the prosecution Thursday as she rejected a defense motion for a mistrial. The decision came after testimony had ended and the jury had left the courtroom.

Warning the government that it was “treading on delicate legal ground,” she said: “I don’t know of any case where a failure to act is sufficient for the death penalty as a matter of law.”

To obtain the death penalty, prosecutors must show that federal agents could have prevented at least one death on Sept. 11 if Moussaoui had not lied.

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