ALEXANDRIA, Va., AP – The jury that will determine whether Zacarias Moussaoui lives or dies must decide whether to believe Moussaoui himself, who says he planned to fly a plane into the White House on Sept. 11, 2001, or the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who says Moussaoui had nothing to do with them.
Moussaoui’s testimony Monday at his death-penalty trial that he was part of the 9/11 plot along with shoe-bomber Richard Reid came as a shock since he previously had denied any role in the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
As soon as Moussaoui finished testifying, the jury was read statements from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Sept. 11 mastermind now in U.S. custody, who said Moussaoui was to have been used in a second wave of attacks completely disconnected from Sept. 11.
The jury was expected to hear statements Tuesday from another al-Qaida operative in U.S. custody, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a suspected paymaster for al-Qaida.
Moussaoui is the only person in this country charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, during which hijackers crashed passenger jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
But even prosecutors are not alleging a direct role for Moussaoui in the 9/11 plot. Instead, they argue that Moussaoui allowed the Sept. 11 plot to go forward by lying about his al-Qaida membership and his true plans when federal agents arrested him in August 2001.
Moussaoui repeatedly had denied involvement in 9/11, and when he admitted guilt in April 2005 to conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack aircraft and commit other crimes, he pointedly made a distinction between his conspiracy and 9/11.
On Monday, though, Moussaoui put himself at the center of the plot. He was asked by defense attorney Gerald Zerkin: “Before your arrest, were you scheduled to pilot a plane as part of the 9/11 operation?”
Moussaoui: “Yes. I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House.”
He said he knew few other details, except that planes also were to be flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
He had met Reid, his purported partner, in the 1990s at London’s Finsbury Park mosque, a haven for Islamic fundamentalists.
On Dec. 22, 2001, Reid was subdued by passengers on a flight from Paris to Miami when he attempted to detonate a bomb in his shoe. That plane landed safely in Boston. Reid later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Moussaoui’s defense attorneys, in their opening arguments, suggested that Moussaoui may prefer execution, which he would see as martyrdom, to life in prison. He isn’t cooperating with his court-appointed attorneys and testified against their wishes.
Mohammed’s testimony came in the form of a 58-page statement culled from government interrogations. He said repeatedly that Moussaoui was to be part of a second wave of attacks, distinct from 9/11.
He was said to have wanted to use only Middle Easterners for Sept. 11 so that Europeans like Moussaoui would stand a better chance of mounting a subsequent attack after security was increased.
Mohammed said he wasn’t aware that Moussaoui was in custody until after Sept. 11, and that Moussaoui’s arrest on Aug. 16 would have disrupted Sept. 11 plans if he were a part of the operation. Mohammed said the second-wave of attacks never materialized because he did not anticipate the ferocity of the U.S. response to Sept. 11 and the only other pilot backed out.
Mohammed considered Moussaoui too self-confident and too talkative. He instructed Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh to cut off contact with Moussaoui in early August 2001 for fear that Moussaoui would get Binalshibh caught.
One other tidbit from Mohammed’s statement: He said the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11 after passengers rebelled against the hijackers was to have targeted the U.S. Capitol. There has been ongoing debate about whether the plane was headed for the Capitol or the White House.
Because Moussaoui has already pleaded, the jury must only determine his sentence: death or life in prison. To obtain the death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui’s actions resulted in at least one death on Sept. 11.