Moussaoui may be seeking martyrdom

Islamic history expert says his seemingly erratic behavior may have deeper purpose

April 09, 2006|By MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- First, Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty. Then he insisted he wasn't part of the Sept. 11 plot and vowed to fight the death penalty "inch by inch." Then he confessed he was to fly a plane into the White House on Sept. 11, an admission that he had to know could seal his execution.

Finally, during a recess last week he shouted out, "You'll never get my blood!"

For four and a half years, the only U.S. defendant in the most deadly crime in American history has been an enigma - incriminating himself more and more deeply even while charging that everyone from a federal judge to his own lawyers is scheming to send him "to the gas chamber."

But a Columbia University expert in Islamic history says Moussaoui's behavior may not be as erratic and unpredictable as it seems. Rather, Richard Bulliet said, Moussaoui's actions are consistent with a man who is convinced he will be executed and is searching for martyrdom according to Islamic principles.

"In all sorts of things in Muslim devotional practice, niyya, or intent, is a crucial factor," Bulliet said in a telephone interview Friday. "If you are executed having denied everything, then you're not going to have a very great likelihood that God is going to regard you as a martyr, because you have denied the act for which you hope that martyrdom would be granted.

"So you have to confess ... because otherwise, you're sort of copping out on the question of your spiritual intent."

After Moussaoui testified, the jury found unanimously that his lies to federal agents upon his arrest Aug. 16, 2001, in Minnesota prevented the government from at least reducing the Sept. 11 death toll. Last week, with the jury hearing wrenching testimony from victims' families as it began to mull over whether to sentence him to lethal injection, Moussaoui sat nodding in agreement when a federal prosecutor said he had shown "no remorse."

Bulliet stressed that no one knows what the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent is thinking as he sits, encircled by federal marshals, his facial expressions shifting from faint grins to scowls to blank stares.

It's possible that Moussaoui's recent confessions "are delusions, aggrandizement - that he's wallowing in momentary celebrity," Bulliet said. "But he has said that the question of martyrdom is conditional in part upon intent. I thought that really rings true. That's the way it works."

Normally in Islam, when a person dies he faces God's judgment on whether his good deeds were carried out "with purity of intent" and outweigh his bad deeds, Bulliet said. If so, he will be received in heaven as a martyr.

During Moussaoui's March 27 testimony, chief federal prosecutor Robert Spencer delved into the question of martyrdom, or shaheed.

Asked if receiving the death penalty is "dying shaheed," Moussaoui replied in broken English:

"It depends if you have, if you have fought to the best of your ability. It can depend on your intention. The same action can have two very different result. ... So for us a shaheed mean martyr at war. And you do not aim to be a shaheed. You fight, and if you meant to come, you come. You don't decide, OK, I'm going to be a shaheed. ... Even if you don't die shaheed, if you pray five times a day and you are truthful to God, you go to heaven."

Moussaoui said he believes in destiny - that "life and death is in the hand of God."

Some legal experts say Moussaoui's only hopes of surviving may be winning an appeal on constitutional grounds or having one or more jurors reject a death sentence in order to stop him from becoming a martyr, as occurred with defendants in the 1998 African Embassy bombings.

Moussaoui's defense lawyers have only mentioned martyrdom once or twice. They say that when they present mitigating factors in the final stages of the sentencing trial, psychiatric experts will testify that Moussaoui suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

But Bulliet said paranoia seems to be a "self-absorbed state where you think everything is focused on you. Well, everything is focused on him. It appears that the entire U.S. government and the entire reaction to Sept. 11 is focused on him, in his case, right now. That isn't paranoia. That's real."

Bulliet said Moussaoui's shouted curses toward America, his singing "Burn in the USA" to the tune of the Bruce Springsteen hit "Born in the USA" and his reveling in the anguish of Sept. 11 victims all fit into place.

"If he believes that the might of the United States and the rage and hurt after 9/11 has by some sort of fluke of law come to be focused on him and that they are going to kill him in revenge for what happened on 9/11, and that's OK, he's ready to die," Bulliet said.

"And he knows that his spiritual intent is pure and that God will see it that way, for him to thumb his nose at the great power that's going to stomp him into nonexistence, why not? He doesn't have many more opportunities to thumb his nose at the power of the United States."

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