"I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House'

Confessed al-Qaida conspirator says he and `shoe bomber' Reid were to hijack 5th jet on Sept. 11

Zacarias Moussaoui Testifies

March 28, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Taking the stand over his lawyers' protests, al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui declared yesterday that he and Richard Reid, later arrested as the so-called "shoe bomber," were to hijack a fifth airliner on Sept. 11, 2001, and fly it into the White House.

But Moussaoui's bombastic testimony - doubted by intelligence officials - was immediately contradicted by the words of captured 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 said Moussaoui was being groomed for a second wave of attacks that included targets in California, such as the largest building in the state, the 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-Qaida initially planned for a half-dozen commercial airplanes to be hijacked over the Pacific Ocean in the mid- to late-1990s and crashed into structures in "California and other Western states."

The high drama in the federal courthouse came as U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema advised the jury that it could begin deliberations tomorrow 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.

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 believed that Moussaoui was part of the Sept. 11 mission, it would be easier for them to conclude that he did bear responsibility. Arrested weeks before the attacks, he presumably would have known enough about the plot to head it off by cooperating with the FBI. Prosecutors say that would make him eligible for the death penalty.

Moussaoui testified that Americans were his enemy and described his glee upon hearing in a Minnesota jail that the World Trade Center was under attack. He said he bought short-bladed knives and was prepared to use the weapons to take down a passenger or 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 often his words and logic made him appear what his lawyers say he is - mentally unstable and almost delusional in his exalted view of himself as a soldier for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

"I don't like the word proud. But I'm grateful to be a member of al-Qaida," Moussaoui testified.

Moussaoui's account diverged sharply from his statements when he pleaded guilty last April. That statement was consistent with Mohammed's account that he was to be part of a later wave of attacks.

Moussaoui spoke in detail yesterday about his duties in Afghanistan, where he said he met many of the hijackers in his capacity as a security officer at guesthouses for al-Qaida recruits.

Moussaoui said he knew only scant details of the plan when he was arrested on Aug. 16, 2001. "I had knowledge that the two towers would be hit, but I didn't have the details," he 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 whether he wanted to be a suicide pilot in an attack on the United States and that he declined. But after two dreams, he changed his mind, he said. He has previously described a dream in which he flew a plane into the White House.

Speaking calmly in halting English, Moussaoui said he didn't know the exact date of the attack but that he knew it would be soon after he was to complete aviation training Aug. 20. Instead, suspicious flight instructors alerted the FBI and Moussaoui was arrested.

Of his crew on the supposed fifth plane, "one definitely was Richard Reid," he said. "As for the others, it was not definite."

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.

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 field.

But Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to having a role in the plot and described himself obliquely as someone who was to crash a plane into the White House at a date he did not reveal. Yesterday, facing the jury from the witness box, he filled in those details.

Dressed in his dark green prison jumpsuit and white religious cap, often stroking his long, black beard and sipping water, he refrained from the speeches and tirades that have marked his courtroom behavior.

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