Taking the stand over his lawyers’ protests, Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui declared Monday that he and Richard Reid, later arrested as the so-called shoe bomber, were slated to hijack a fifth airplane on Sept. 11, 2001, and fly it into the White House.
But Moussaoui’s bombastic testimony -- seriously doubted by intelligence officials -- was immediately contradicted by the words of the suspected Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who said in an interrogation read aloud in court that Moussaoui was too “problematic” and unreliable to join the 19 hijackers on their suicide missions.
Mohammed instead said Moussaoui was being groomed for a second wave of attacks -- first disclosed in March 2004 -- that included targets in California, such as the tallest building in the state, the former Library Tower in Los Angeles, and bridges in San Francisco and San Mateo.
He also described how the Sept. 11 plot originated in strategy sessions in Malaysia and how Al Qaeda initially planned for half a dozen commercial airplanes to be hijacked over the Pacific Ocean and then crashed into structures in “California and other Western states” in the mid- to late-1990s.
The high drama in the federal courthouse here came as U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema advised the jury that it probably would begin deliberations as early as Wednesday to decide whether Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan ancestry, was responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the Sept. 11 attacks. If they decide he is, they will then determine whether he dies or spends the rest of his life in prison. Moussaoui took the witness stand over repeated pleas by his court-appointed defense lawyers that his testimony was a reckless gambit and would make it easy for the jury to dispatch him to death row.
If jurors believe that Moussaoui was scheduled for the Sept. 11 mission, it would be easier for them to conclude that he did bear responsibility for the deaths that day. Arrested weeks before the attacks, he presumably would have known enough about the plot to head it off by cooperating with the FBI. Prosecutors argue that would make him eligible for the death penalty.
Indeed, he often testified with a hard-edged bravado about how Americans were his enemy and described his glee upon hearing in a Minnesota jail that the World Trade Center was under attack.
He also told with cold efficiency that he bought short-bladed knives and was preparing to use the weapons to take down a passenger or a flight attendant or anyone else who got in his way.
“You don’t have to be trained to cut the throat of somebody,” Moussaoui said. “It is not difficult.”
But at times his words and logic made him appear what his lawyers claim he is -- mentally unstable and almost delusional in his exalted view of himself as a soldier for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. His defense team hopes that ultimately the jurors will decide they cannot execute a man who is insane.
“I don’t like the word proud. But I’m grateful to be a member of Al Qaeda,” Moussaoui said at one point.
The account by Moussaoui diverged sharply from his statement when he pleaded guilty in April. That statement was consistent with Mohammed’s account that he was to be part of a later wave of attacks, in which the White House was among the targets.
Moussaoui spoke in detail Monday about his duties as an Al Qaeda member in Afghanistan, where he said he met many of the hijackers in his capacity as a security officer at guest houses for Al Qaeda recruits.
Moussaoui said he had only scant details of the overall plan when he was arrested Aug. 16, 2001. “I had knowledge that the two towers would be hit but I didn’t have the detail,” Moussaoui said.
Asked by Gerald Zerkin, one of his court-appointed attorneys, if he was meant to be part of the Sept. 11 attacks, Moussaoui said: “I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House.”
Moussaoui said he was asked in 1999 if he wanted to be a suicide pilot in an attack on the United States, and he declined. But after two dreams, he changed his mind. In one of the dreams, he said, he saw an image of the White House as a target in crosshairs.
Speaking calmly in halting English, Moussaoui said he didn’t know the exact date of the planned attack but that he knew it would be soon after he was scheduled to complete his aviation training Aug. 20, 2001. Instead, suspicious flight instructors alerted the FBI and Moussaoui was arrested.
Of his crew members on the supposed fifth plane, “one definitely was Richard Reid. As for the others, it was not definite,” he said.
On Dec. 22, 2001, Reid tried to detonate a bomb in his shoe aboard a flight from Paris to Miami with 197 people on board. Passengers subdued him and the plane was diverted to Boston, where it landed safely. He is serving a life term in prison.
The government and Mohammed, whose statement to interrogators was summarized in 58 pages read to the jury, agree that Moussaoui was not the so-called 20th hijacker -- the missing man on the four-hijacker plane that went down in a Pennsylvania farm field.
But when Moussaoui pleaded guilty to having a role in the plot, he described himself only obliquely as someone who was to crash a plane into the White House at a date he did not reveal. Then on Monday, facing the jury from the witness box, he filled in those details.
Dressed in his dark green prison jumpsuit and a white cap, often stroking his long black beard and sipping from a Styrofoam cup of water, he refrained from the speeches and tirades that have marked his past courtroom behavior.
He concisely answered questions and often was quite polite, except when he refused to respond to the lead prosecutor who wished him a “good morning.”
But the measure of the man -- the only Al Qaeda terrorist to stand trial for Sept. 11 in this country -- was also borne out by the presence of six large male deputy marshals who stood around Moussaoui as he testified, their eyes focused on him.
He also declined to raise his hand and take the oath before testifying, instead simply telling the judge “yes I can” when she asked if he could tell truth.
He testified that he knew that Mohamed Atta, the hijackers’ team leader, was also in the U.S. and that the two towers were to be hit. But he said his role was to be different that morning.
Moussaoui and Reid, supposedly part of that crew, had both attended the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, a hotbed of Muslim extremism. But there has been no evidence that Reid was in the United States in mid-August 2001, when Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota for overstaying his visa.
Nevertheless, Moussaoui testified that he was instructed both by Bin Laden and Atta to fly a fifth plane and to crash it into the White House. Although he said he had been given no specific date, he believed it was to be the morning of Sept. 11.
He further admitted that he lied to FBI agents when arrested in Minnesota, a key point for the government. Moussaoui said he would not cooperate because “I wanted my mission to go ahead.”
“I knew it would happen after August, so I bought a radio and I was listening,” he said. “On the radio they said there was a fire in the World Trade Center. Then somebody put the TV on and I saw the World Trade Center in flames.
“I immediately understood.”
Moussaoui was cross-examined by lead prosecutor Robert A. Spencer, who asked him about his reaction to the loss of life that day.
“You are Americans, and I consider every American to be my enemy,” Moussaoui said.
Spencer reminded him how he once wrote to the judge in a sealed letter that he heard that one of the attendants on United Airlines Flight 93 screamed “I don’t want to die” before it crashed in western Pennsylvania.
“Were you happy she died?” Spencer asked.
“I didn’t have any feelings,” Moussaoui said.
He was ambiguous when asked whether a death sentence would make him an Al Qaeda martyr. Other juries in past terrorism cases have given defendants life rather than death for that very reason.
“I’m not concerned with the death penalty. I don’t believe you have or the government or the jury will have anything to say about my death.”
He added: “I believe in destiny.”
When Moussaoui was finished, the lengthy summary testimony from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was read in court. U.S. intelligence sources said the 58-page summary of the results of his interrogation appeared to be the same material made available to the Sept. 11 Commission, whose report referred frequently to Mohammed’s statements.
He was captured in March 2003, and continues to be held at an undisclosed location.
Many human rights monitors believe he may have been tortured to talk, and cite that as a reason he has never been charged with a crime in connection with the Sept. 11 attack despite the fact that in his summary testimony he took full responsibility as the main architect of the plot.
He talked about the so-called Bojinka plot from the mid-1990s in which extremists were going to detonate explosives on 12 planes over the Pacific.
Mohammed said he then decided to have six planes explode over the ocean, and use the remaining six to dive-bomb targets in California and other Western states, all on the same day.
But Mohammed said Bin Laden nixed the plan because it would have been too difficult. So from there they decided to plant hijackers in the United States and attack targets from within.
For the Sept. 11 plot, Bin Laden wanted the targets to be of economic, political and military value, and Mohammed said they accordingly chose the World Trade Center, the U.S. Capitol building and the Pentagon. The plane that passengers forced down in Pennsylvania was to hit the Capitol, he said.
Mohammed said Bin Laden initially wanted the attacks to take place in June 2001, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to visit the White House. When that was not feasible, Bin Laden wanted the attacks on Sept. 12 -- 11 months after the U.S. warship Cole was bombed in Yemen.
But Atta, dubbed the plot’s “emir,” was given wide latitude in selecting a date and assembling the hijacking teams.
Mohammed discounted Moussaoui as belonging to one of the four hijacking crews. He said Moussaoui had caused problems for Al Qaeda, and leaders feared he would stupidly reveal the plot. He noted that Moussaoui often sent e-mails and had long phone calls discussing the plans, endangering security.
Moussaoui, Mohammed said, had a “problematic personality” and “he talked too much.”
Mohammed said he also worried that Bin Laden himself might inadvertently say too much. He said the Al Qaeda leader was openly saying in the summer of 2001 that something big was coming, even telling a group of new terrorist recruits that they would be pleased with what was about to happen.
Not only could that have ruined the Sept. 11 plot, but it also could have endangered the second wave that Al Qaeda planned, Mohammed said. These were the attacks on the West Coast, but also included the plan for Moussaoui to hit the White House. Other attacks would include subway attacks and mass poisonings.
For the second wave, Mohammed said, they wanted people like Moussaoui who were not Middle Eastern -- Western Europeans and Canadians -- because Mohammed expected the U.S. government would assume any follow-up attacks would come from Arab extremists.
But Mohammed said the second wave was called off because Al Qaeda never expected such a concentrated military response by the U.S. after the trade center and Pentagon were attacked.
Nevertheless, he said of the Sept. 11 plot: “In the end the operation was a success.”