Moussaoui pleads guilty

French citizen admits al-Qaida link, role in plot to carry out 9/11 attacks

April 23, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Zacarias Moussaoui handed the U.S. government yesterday its only conviction tied to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, admitting he conspired to kill Americans and claiming he was personally selected by Osama bin Laden to fly a plane into the White House as part of a second wave of attacks.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty to each of six conspiracy charges against him, four of which could carry the death penalty. Speaking in a calm, sure voice before a packed courtroom, Moussaoui said he would fight a death sentence with "every inch" of his body and had not cut a deal with the government.

"That is correct," Moussaoui, a 36-year-old French Islamic radical and admitted al-Qaida loyalist, told U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema. "I can't expect any leniency from the Americans."

Moussaoui still must face the penalty phase of his case, where a jury would decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison. Brinkema did not set a date yesterday for that proceeding, which could still be months away.

In Washington, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters the government would seek a death sentence for Moussaoui, saying that he and his co-conspirators "were responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents on Sept. 11."

"The fact that Moussaoui participated in this terrorist conspiracy is no longer in doubt," Gonzales said.

Yesterday's guilty plea was an important and symbolic win for the government. Moussaoui was the only person ever to be charged in a U.S. court in connection with the terror strikes that killed nearly 3,000 people. And Moussaoui's plea, which he entered over objections by defense attorneys that he did not understand the consequences, cut short what promised to be a protracted and potentially bizarre trial.

Moussaoui had shown a pattern of erratic behavior in court, filing hand-scrawled court pleadings and once before announcing he wanted to plead guilty, only to change his mind a week later.

His unpredictable behavior continued yesterday. After Brinkema accepted his guilty plea, Moussaoui launched into a lengthy diatribe insisting that the conspiracy he admitted participating in was not directly related to the Sept. 11 plot and complaining again that his court-appointed lawyers were trying to ensure his execution.

"I came to the United States to be part of a conspiracy to use airplanes as a weapon of mass destruction ... but this conspiracy was a different conspiracy than 9/11," Moussaoui said, standing before the judge in a dark green jumpsuit with the word "prisoner" on the back. "So everyone knows, I'm not 9/11 material."

In court records filed yesterday, the government presented a different picture. According to a five-page statement of the facts that U.S. prosecutors said they would have proven if his case had gone to trial, Moussaoui's actions in the months and years leading up to the Sept. 11 strikes closely mirrored the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks.

Moussaoui trained at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan and managed an al-Qaida guesthouse in Kandahar, a position of "high respect" within the terrorist organization, prosecutors said.

Moussaoui associated directly with bin Laden and knew about al-Qaida's plans to fly airplanes "into prominent buildings in the United States," the court records said. According to the papers, Moussaoui "agreed to travel to the United States to participate in the plan. Bin Laden personally selected Moussaoui to participate in the operation to fly planes into American buildings and approved Moussaoui attacking the White House."

According to the government's account, bin Laden told Moussaoui: "Sahrawi, remember your dream," calling Moussaoui by the alias he considered his jihad name.

Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 after he aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school and the FBI opened an investigation. The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks faulted the FBI for not pursuing Moussaoui's case more aggressively, calling it a missed opportunity to stop the hijackings.

After he was indicted in December 2001, government officials suggested that Moussaoui might have been the "20th hijacker" and would have participated in the attacks if he had not been jailed in Minnesota, but prosecutors had backed away from that assessment more recently.

According to the court records, Moussaoui lied to federal agents after his arrest "to allow his al-Qaida `brothers' to go forward with the operation to fly planes into American buildings."

A few family members of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks looked on as Moussaoui entered his guilty plea yesterday. Outside the federal courthouse here, they called his admission an "unconditional surrender" and rejected his distinction that the plot he thought he was involved in was somehow different from the one that killed their relatives.

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