Moussaoui Trial Leaves Questions Unanswered

The decision by the jury in the six-week trial of Zacarias Moussaoui – portrayed by the prosecution as the “Twentieth Hijacker” – not to invoke the death penalty is a blow for the U.S. Justice Department and shows that the Virginia jury was not persuaded by the widespread campaign to portray the French national of Moroccan origin as a central figure in al-Qaeda’s attacks on America.

Moussaoui, 37, was already in U.S. custody when the 9/11 attacks took place. His eccentric behavior at a flight training school, including his requests to be taught how to fly without bothering to learn takeoff and landing techniques, had led to his arrest and detention on immigration charges a month before the attacks.

Despite this, prosecutors sought to establish that if he had told all he knew prior to the attacks, they could have been prevented. This was always a weak argument, and it was not accepted by the jury, who saw him as a marginal figure, outside the main conspiracy. He will now spend the rest of his life in prison, despite having goaded the jury in the later stages of the trial to execute him.

Moussaoui’s mental condition has been an issue throughout the trial and the four years of legal argument leading up to it. A quick perusal of his submissions to the court is enough to convince most people that his mind was deranged. Scrawled slogans, endless meanderings, and meaningless drivel characterize many of his documents, and psychiatrists from prosecution and defense were drawn in to offer competing theories about his state of mind.

The case was very nearly abandoned at one point after it was revealed that prosecution lawyers had been coaching witnesses. When this failed and it was clear that the legal argument was going against the prosecutors, they brought in more than 40 relatives of 9/11 victims to give their own heart-rending stories in a blatant attempt to exert moral pressure on the jury for a death penalty verdict.

Perhaps the most important piece of evidence against the Justice Department case was provided by the man who planned the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM). Arrested in Pakistan in March 2003 and quickly handed over to the Americans, no one now knows where he is being held, although numerous reports have made it clear that he has been tortured using the infamous “waterboarding” technique and that he is now cooperating with his interrogators.

According to KSM, Moussaoui was a dangerous liability to al-Qaeda and caused so many security problems that he tried to get him removed from the terror training program he had established. So frustrated was he by Moussaoui’s repeated security breaches that he pleaded with Osama bin Laden to throw him off the training program, and when this failed, eventually severed all connections with him in August 2001, shortly before Moussaoui himself was arrested. He says he only learned of his arrest in the days following the 9/11 attacks.

KSM’s comments emerged in a little-reported document submitted to Moussaoui’s trial. The 54-page document is a mixture of summaries of the information he has provided to his CIA interrogators, together with statements he wrote himself. “You should assume that if Sheik Mohammed were available to testify in this courtroom under oath and subject to perjury, he would have said what is contained in these statements,” the document states.

He told his interrogators that Moussaoui was destined for a second wave of attacks, due to take place on the West Coast of America using operatives with European and East Asian passports. Moussaoui was selected because he was one of the few al-Qaeda members with a French passport.

However, the second wave attacks was never decided upon in detail. Moussaoui had no contact with Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks, and had no knowledge of the targets or the planned date of the attacks.

If Moussaoui had been involved, said KSM, the operation would have been called off following his arrest three weeks before 9/11. Even if one of the hijackers had dropped out, he would not have used Moussaoui.

KSM revealed that the real “twentieth hijacker” was a man called Abd-al Rahman al-Janubi, who was selected by bin Laden. But al-Janubi was “an extremely simple man” who didn’t even know of the need to obtain a visa to visit the United States. He says that al-Janubi was “too much of an unsophisticated ‘Bedouin’ to function with ease in a modern, Western society.” In fact, when al-Janubi arrived at Orlando airport in Florida, he was refused entry because of his suspicious appearance and behavior.

As part of his training, in late 1999 Moussaoui had been sent to Malaysia to get flying lessons. He was looked after by members of the Jemayaah Islamiyah group, but they quickly became fed up with him. Instead of pursuing flight training, Moussaoui tried to buy four tons of fertilizer to make bombs. The organization eventually sent a senior member to Pakistan to complain, and Moussaoui was recalled.

At this point, KSM tried to get him pulled from the program, but bin Laden and his military commander, Abu Hafs al-Masri, insisted that he continue. Instead, he was sent for retraining in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan before being sent to the United States.

Moussaoui was unaware that others had already been sent to America and was repeatedly told to observe strict security rules. Yet only days after he arrived, he e-mailed KSM about his flight training plans. Exasperated, KSM refused to deal with him any more, passing him on to Ramzi Binalshibh, the coordinator of the Hamburg cell.

Even that did not stop Moussaoui, who subsequently called Binalshibh in Germany on eight occasions, despite strict instructions not to do so.

So the real story of Zacarias Moussaoui is of a man who was clearly out of control and was too difficult even for his own former comrades. There is little reason to doubt KSM’s testimony, and it seems likely that it had an impact on the jury.

According to KSM, Moussaoui was not the only person who failed to obey strict security guidelines over the 9/11 attacks. Osama bin Laden himself made a number of references to an impending attack on America in the summer of 2001. During a speech to recruits at the al-Faruq camp in Afghanistan, he urged trainees to pray for the success of a major operation involving 20 martyrs. Both KSM and Abu Hafs al-Masri had to warn him to be more discrete.

Now that the trial has concluded, Moussaoui will be transferred to the federal maximum security prison at Florence, Colorado. And the world will be left to ponder why the main organizers of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh – both of whom are in U.S. custody – have never been put on trial.