WASHINGTON – Zacarias Moussaoui took the stand at his death penalty trial Monday and declared that he was supposed to hijack a fifth airplane on Sept. 11, 2001, and crash it into the White House in the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The al-Qaida operative said his role was to head a five-man crew that included Richard Reid, the British citizen who later tried to set off explosives in his shoes aboard a transatlantic flight. Moussaoui said that his orders came from Osama bin Laden and that his plan was foiled by his arrest in August 2001.
“I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House,” Moussaoui told a riveted federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va. “I only knew about the two planes of the World Trade Center in addition to my own plane.”
His words were as stunning as the way in which he delivered them. When he pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaida last year, Moussaoui denied involvement in Sept. 11 and insisted that he was to be part of a second wave of attacks. He then launched into one of his rambling courtroom outbursts, ending it by screaming, “God curse America!”
The familiar Moussaoui was gone Monday. In his place was a hardened terrorist operative who spoke calmly and methodically, looking straight at his questioners as he voiced his hatred for the nation that had put him on trial for his life. “I consider every American to be my enemy,” Moussaoui, 37, said as jurors leaned forward in their seats. “For me, every American is going to want my death because I want their death.”
The extraordinary spectacle of an admitted al-Qaida member testifying about the deadliest terrorist attack in American history was later matched by something equally unusual. Defense lawyers read into the record evidence gathered in the United States’ secret and controversial detention system, telling jurors what Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a key planner of Sept. 11, would have said had he taken the stand.
And Mohammed’s words, given to interrogators at the undisclosed location where he is being held, contradicted Moussaoui’s testimony.
He said Moussaoui had been slated for a second wave of attacks that would have included targets not hit on Sept. 11, such as the White House and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Mohammed noted that the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon proceeded on schedule despite Moussaoui’s arrest while taking flying lessons in Minnesota.
‘Wanted mission to go ahead’
Even if Moussaoui’s precise role is never certain, what was clear Monday was the damage that his testimony, given over the strenuous objections of his lawyers, had done to his defense. Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Spencer, Moussaoui admitted to the government’s primary argument for his execution – that he lied to the FBI after his arrest to allow the Sept. 11 attacks to go forward.
Moussaoui acknowledged that he did not know the exact date of the attacks but that he knew they were to take place just after August. He learned of the attacks while listening to the radio while in jail in Minnesota, and “I immediately understood,” he testified.
Moussaoui said he lied “because I wanted my mission to go ahead,” adding that he “never told them anything about the operation.”
“You hid that from them. You concealed it, right?” Spencer asked.
“Indeed,” Moussaoui replied.
Legal experts said those admissions, combined with Moussaoui’s chilling demeanor in court, probably would resonate with the jury, which is expected to begin deliberating this week on whether he is eligible for the death penalty. If jurors found him eligible, a second phase of the hearing would determine whether Moussaoui should be executed.
“It sounds like he’s toast,” said Eric Muller, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the University of North Carolina. “The prosecution’s best hope was to make him appear scary rather than crazy. It sounds like he was really scary.”
The prosecution’s case had appeared troubled only days ago. Prosecutors were embarrassed by the misconduct of a government lawyer, Carla J. Martin, who improperly coached witnesses. Moussaoui’s attorneys unearthed government documents that showed in new detail how the FBI had ignored repeated warnings from its own agents that Moussaoui was a terrorist who wanted to hijack an airplane.
Before Moussaoui took the stand, his attorneys, with whom he does not speak, tried to block his testimony. One, Gerald T. Zerkin, said Moussaoui does not recognize the court’s authority and, “as an al-Qaida member, he believes it is OK to lie.”
But prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to let him speak. Brinkema agreed, acknowledging that Moussaoui “had expressed his disdain of the United States” but had promised to behave in court.
Asked by a court clerk to raise his right hand and promise to tell the truth, Moussaoui stood motionless. He then told Brinkema he understood that he was required to speak truthfully, and he was allowed to take the stand.
In a thick French accent, he matter-of-factly explained the great pleasure he derived from the deaths of so many Americans on Sept. 11. At one point, Spencer whipped out one of the numerous handwritten motions Moussaoui had written from jail when he was representing himself earlier in the case. The motion said the 19 hijackers should be “blessed” by Allah. “You still believe that?” Spencer asked. “One hundred percent,” Moussaoui replied.
Moussaoui said he initially declined to take part in the Sept. 11 plot when he was first asked by senior al-Qaida leaders in 1999 while he was managing a guest house for bin Laden’s organization in Afghanistan. He changed his mind, he said, after dreaming about crashing a plane into the White House. He mentioned the dream to bin Laden, who sent a senior lieutenant to tell Moussaoui to get flight training in the United States.
By the summer of 2001, Moussaoui said, he knew other hijackers were in the United States, but he had no contact with them here. He identified most of the 19 hijackers when prosecutors flashed their pictures on a screen, saying he knew them from his time in Afghanistan.
His own hijacking cell, Moussaoui said, was to include Reid, who later pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight by igniting his shoes.
Moussaoui testified repeatedly that he views himself as being at war with the United States. Asked by Zerkin whether a death sentence would make him a martyr, he said: “I believe in destiny. … What I’m doing now is just to speak the truth, and God will take care of the rest.”