FBI Agent Says 9/11 Plot Was Within Grasp

Times Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors completed their case Thursday in the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui with a former FBI agent who said that if Moussaoui had cooperated after his arrest in August 2001, 11 of the 19 hijackers could have been located fairly quickly and stopped before the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

The testimony set the stage for the French terrorist to take the witness stand in his own defense next week.

“I will testify!” Moussaoui shouted to his lawyers after the government presented its last witness. “Whether you want it or not, I will testify!”


His four court-appointed lawyers have urged him not to take the stand, fearing his volatile temper and oft-expressed hatred for Americans will only encourage the jury to sentence him to death.

The government’s final witness was Aaron Zebley, one of the FBI’s two chief case agents on the Moussaoui investigation, who now works as an assistant U.S. attorney.

He identified a series of phone calls, Western Union money transfers and other evidence linking Moussaoui to Al Qaeda handlers in Germany and the United Arab Emirates. Those same handlers coordinated the movements of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers in the U.S.

Zebley said that if Moussaoui had told the FBI about these money transfers, agents could have identified 11 of the hijackers and stopped them before they reached the airports in Boston, Washington and Newark, N.J., on the morning of Sept. 11.

“We could have set about finding them, obviously,” Zebley said. “We could have shared this information with our law enforcement partners on the federal, state and local levels. We could have shared this with our intelligence partners too, and the Secret Service.”

Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to having a role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. He said he was handpicked by Al Qaeda front man Osama bin Laden to come to the U.S., take pilot lessons and eventually fly a jet into the White House.


On Sept. 11, three planes struck the two World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth plane, which went down in a western Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to reclaim the jetliner, is believed to have been headed toward either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

Zebley also testified that had Moussaoui allowed the FBI to inspect his belongings, agents would have found lists of flight schools, including the jet simulator school he was attending in Eagan, Minn., and other pilot training facilities in south Florida where some of the hijackers learned to fly.

“We could have got to those flight schools and looked for people like the defendant,” Zebley said. “Somebody rushing through flight school and onto jet simulators. Someone with a Middle Eastern name. We’d be looking for people who look like the defendant.”

But under cross-examination, Zebley admitted that there were key elements of the Sept. 11 plot that appeared completely unknown to Moussaoui.

None of Moussaoui’s possessions carried the names of any of the hijackers. All of the flight tickets purchased by the hijackers were bought after Moussaoui was arrested, indicating he did not know the date for the attacks. And there also was no proof that Moussaoui knew which buildings and structures were being targeted.

Zebley conceded that FBI does not believe Moussaoui was supposed to have been aboard one of the planes. “There never was a 20th hijacker,” Zebley said. But he added, “the plot was to get as many conspirators in the U.S. as possible.”


Zebley concluded a troubled prosecution case in which several other FBI witnesses conceded that the bureau had ignored repeated warnings about a looming terrorist attack. And the government’s case was hurt when a federal lawyer improperly coached several prospective witnesses familiar with aviation security.

The lawyer, Carla Martin of the Transportation Security Administration, has been subpoenaed to appear Monday before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to explain her conduct. The judge barred the “tainted” witnesses from testifying.

The defense began its case late Thursday by calling Eric Rigler, a former FBI special agent who now runs a criminal justice consulting firm in Texas. Rigler led the jury through the FBI’s many “missed opportunities” to detect the plot, as laid out in a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

The defense is trying to show that even if Moussaoui had cooperated with the FBI, its agents made so many mistakes in the weeks before Sept. 11 that it would be unfair to blame the massive loss of life on the defendant, who was in jail when the attacks occurred.