Moussaoui and 9/11

What was the role of Zacarias Moussaoui in the 9/11 plot? I do not know. The following article is based solely on the records of the Moussaoui trial, as laid out in court transcripts and trial reports.
The article deals with the following questions:

A. Was Moussaoui supposed to be the 20th Hijacker on 9/11?
B. Did Moussaoui have foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot?
C. Did Moussaoui have foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot, which, if discovered, could have stopped or hampered the development of the plot?
D. Was Moussaoui part of a plot to use aircraft as missiles against buildings in the US?
E. Was Moussaoui part of the 9/11 plot?

The answers are twofold, depending on the party answering, Moussaoui himself or the Grand Jury.

The Moussaoui trial

2001, December 11 – The indictment

On December 11, 2001, the Grand Jury charged Zacarias Moussaoui with six conspiracy counts:

(i) Conspiracy to Commit Acts of Terrorism Transcending National Boundaries
(ii) Conspiracy to Commit Aircraft Piracy
(iii) Conspiracy to Destroy Aircraft
(iv) Conspiracy to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction
(v) Conspiracy to Murder United States Employees
(vi) Conspiracy to Destroy Property

The indictment clearly connects these charges with the 9/11 plot.

[…] the defendant, ZACARIAS MOUSSAOUI, a/k/a “Shaqil,” a/k/a “Abu Khalid al Sahrawi,” with other members and associates of al Qaeda and others known and unknown to the Grand Jury, unlawfully, wilfully and knowingly combined, conspired, confederated and agreed to kill and maim persons within the United States […], resulting in the deaths of thousands of persons on September 11, 2001.

This is no trivial point to press. It is true that any accomplice in the 9/11 plot can be described as someone conspiring to
- commit acts of terrorism,
- commit aircraft piracy,
- destroy aircraft,
- use weapons of mass destruction,
- murder US employees, and
- destroy property.

This is because the 9/11 plot
- was an act of terrorism,
- involved aircraft piracy,
- involved aircraft destruction,
- involved using aircraft as WMD,
- involved murdering US employees, and
- involved destruction of property.

The reverse, however, is not true, for that not every deed
- being an act of terrorism,
- involving aircraft piracy,
- involving aircraft destruction,
- involving using aircraft as WMD,
- involving the murder of US employees, and
- involving destruction of property
necessarily results in the 9/11 plot. Consider Operation Bojinka, for example.

So the charges of the Grand Jury were six ones, plus an implication: That Moussaoui conspired in a way detailed in (i) – (vi) and that (vii) the result of the conspiracy were the events of 9/11.

2001, December – “20th hijacker” rumor starts to spread

The indictment of Moussaoui was immediately followed by mass media outlets claiming that Moussaoui was charged with being the 20th hijacker missing on United 93. The reasoning goes like this. Moussaoui entered the United States prior to the events of 9/11 and immediately began trying to learn how to fly a plane. He had clear connections to one of the 9/11 plotters, Ramzi Bin Al-Shib, and to Al Qaeda in general. His behaviour and features, then, match with the four 9/11 pilots Mohammed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah.
Moussaoui was not on one of the 9/11 planes, however, and thus no actual 9/11 pilot. But while he was no actual pilot, he certainly could have been a potential or planned 9/11 pilot. And indeed, on one of the 9/11 planes, United 93, only four hijackers boarded (instead of five, like on the other planes). Thus, Moussaoui must have been a potential 9/11 pilot.
This line of reasoning was recounted in dozens of news outlets following the events of 9/11, as e.g. is documented in a piece by NBC. The argument was seemingly confirmed when news came out that Ziad Jarrah, the actual pilot of United 93, was a source of constant trouble for the 9/11 plotters, not fitting the profile of a wannabe martyr. Moussaoui, then, was interpreted to be the Jarrah replacement, in case Jarrah would back out of the 9/11 plot – a “potential substitute pilot for Jarrah”, as the 9/11 CR (p. 246) puts it.
The reasoning leading to the “20th hijacker” claim is somewhat flimsy in that Moussaoui replacing Jarrah still would leave four, not five hijackers boarding United 93, and in that Moussaoui behaving like the other hijacker pilots still leaves open a range of possibilities explaining his behaviour. E.g., he could have been part of a 9/11-like operation or  part of an Al Qaeda training program with no immediate connection to any actual operation whatsoever.
Thus, it is wise to accurately distinguish between five claims about Zacarias Moussaoui:

1. Moussaoui was supposed to be the 20th Hijacker on 9/11.
2. Moussaoui had foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot.
3. Moussaoui had foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot, which, if discovered, could have stopped or hampered the development of the plot.
4. Moussaoui was part of a plot to use aircraft as missiles against buildings in the US.
5. Moussaoui was part of the 9/11 plot.

Keep this in mind. The indictment from December 16, 2001, reflects the second, third, fourth, and fifth claim, not the first one. Media after the indictment identified the indictment with approving of the first claim.

2002, July 18 – Moussaoui´s “pure plea”

In a hearing which was supposed to be a routine re-arraignment on a superseding indictment, Moussaoui, who insisted on defending himself, entered a “pure plea and affirmative plea” into the record, containing a plea of guilty.

[Moussaoui] I want to enter a plea, I want to enter a plea of guilty.  I want to enter a plea today of guilty,  because this will ensure to save my life, because this is conspiracy law.  It’s much more complicated than what you want to  make people to believe, because even if I plead guilty, I will be able to prove that I have certain knowledge about September 11, and I know exactly who done it.
I know which group, who participated, when it was decided. I have many information.

The judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, immediately and naturally interprets this as pleading guilty to the charges of the Grand Jury. Given the magnitude of this admission, she rejects Moussaoui´s plea on the basis of the suspicion that he is confused about the consequences of his plea, effectively deferring the hearing.

[Judge Brinkema] If you absolutely want to enter a guilty plea and admit your guilt for the offenses that are alleged in this indictment, I will give you the right to do that, but I want you to take a little time to think about whether that’s really what you want to do. You know how to reach the Court. I’ll give you at least a week to think about that.

Moussaoui, meanwhile, stands by his plea, claiming that the decision to be taken by the Grand Jury needs to concern the degree of penalty, not the question whether he´s guilty.

[Moussaoui] So now I’m saying that for the guilt phase, I’m guilty for the — yes, the guilt phase. But for the death penalty, we will see.

With respect to the five claims about Zacarias Moussaoui detailed above, Moussaoui, by pleading guilty to the charges of the Grand Jury, affirms claim 4, being part of a plot to use aircraft as missiles against buildings in the US, and, by attributing special knowledge about the 9/11 plot to himself (“who participated, when it was decided”), implies foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot, affirming foreknowledge claim 2 or even claim 3.

2002, July 25 – Moussaoui´s partial guilty plea, then renouncing

In another hearing in July 2002, Moussaoui pleaded guilty on four of the six charges, namely the charges possibly resulting in death penalty, which would be the charge of conspiracy to (i) commit acts of terrorism, (ii) aircraft piracy, (ii) aircraft destruction and (iv) use weapons of mass destruction. During the hearing, however, he steps back, and finally pleads “not guilty” on all charges. „You clearly are not admitting to the essential elements of these conspiracies,” judge Brinkema concludes. “You have an absolute right to require the government to put its proof before a jury and see whether they have sufficient evidence to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Three years of legal processing follow Moussaouis plea. The happenings do no help to answer the questions detailed in the editorial of this article, and are briefly covered in a short NPR piece.

2005, April 25 – Moussaoui´s Janus-faced guilty plea

In a secret hearing in April 2005, Moussaoui, against the advice of his lawyers, and knowing that his plea might result in the death penalty, pleaded guilty on all six charges:

[Judge Brinkema] If you sign this statement of facts, and if I accept it, that will suffice to be a factual basis to find you guilty. Do you understand that?
[Moussaoui] Absolutely. I understand this.
[Brinkema] All right. Do you want to sign that document at this time?
[Moussaoui] Yes, I want.
[Brinkema] All right.
[Moussaoui] Finally I get a pen.

Moussaoui, however, in the same breath rejects any connection between his guilty plea and the events of 9/11, for he considers himself to be part of a plot to use aircraft as missiles against buildings in the US, but not the 9/11 plot.

[Moussaoui] I ask the government to point out to me a single paragraph where they say I’m specificially guilty of 911 -
[Brinkema] All right.
[Moussaoui] – because the government had said that there is a broader conspiracy to use airplane as weapon of mass destruction.
If that’s absolutely correct, that I came to the United States of America to be part, okay, of a conspiracy to use airplane as a weapon of mass destruction, I was being trained on the 747 400 to eventually use this plane as stated in this statement of fact to strike the White House, but this conspiracy was a different conspiracy that 9/11.
My conspiracy has for aim to free Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh, who is held in Florence, Colorado, okay, and we wanted to use the 747 because it, it is a long-distance plane who could reach Afghanistan without any stopover to give a chance to special forces to storm the plane.
So I am guilty of a broad conspiracy to use weapon of mass destruction to hit the White House if the American government refuse to negotiate, okay.

This is a subtle detail, as it implies Moussaoui affirming claim 4 of being part of a plot to use aircraft as missiles against buildings in the US, while none of it affirms any of the other four claims, which detail his potential role in the 9/11 plot. Hence, Moussaoui was not affirming the claim of being the 20th hijacker, having any foreknowledge about 9/11, or playing any role in the 9/11 plot whatsoever.
In bizarre irony, however, he signed his guilty plea with “The 20th hijacker”, an idea he later described as “a bit of fun”.
This account from Moussaoui was later confirmed by KSM, the 9/11 architect, who, in a so-called “substitution for testimony”, claimed that Moussaoui was meant for a second wave of attacks which were to have taken place after 9/11. KSM also claimed that Moussaoui knew nothing of the 9/11 plot.

With Moussaoui pleading guilty to all charges, the guilt phase of the trial ended. “Whether Moussaoui was part of Sept. 11 or some other plot is immaterial“, the Washington Post cites officials, referring to the six charges of the original indictment, which contain no reference to 9/11.
This assessment of the legal situation may be technically true, as the six charges in the indictment are not exclusively features of the 9/11 plot, but also of similar plots (like the one Moussaoui describes). It is nonetheless a stretch of the original indictment, which, via implication (vii), presses that the charged conspiracy “result[ed] in the deaths of thousands of persons on September 11, 2001.“

2006, March 27 – Moussaoui subscribing to 9/11

In another hearing during the sentencing phase of the trial, Moussaoui, blowing his defense, presented another version of events. According to this version, he knew Mohammed Atta to be in the US, and that the WTC towers would be hit in an attack: “I had knowledge that the Twin Towers would be hit. I didn’t know the details of this.” He further testified: „I knew it would happen after August, so I bought a radio and I was listening. On the radio they said there was a fire in the World Trade Center. Then somebody put the TV on, and I saw the World Trade Center in flames. I immediately understood.“
Moussaoui also testified that he was instructed both by Bin Laden and Atta to fly a fifth plane and to crash it into the White House on a date he believed to be September 11, 2001. He also said he lied to FBI investigators after his capture for the reason “I wanted my mission to go ahead.” A crew member on the supposed fifth plane, according to Moussaoui, “definitely was Richard Reid. As for the others, it was not definite.”

When later asked by lead prosecutor Robert A. Spencer whether he tried to conceal foreknowledge of the attacks from the FBI, Moussaoui confirmed his earlier statements:

[Prosecutor Spencer] So when you said that you lied to the FBI in August 2001 to let the attacks go forward, you told the truth then?
[Moussaoui] I say it again, yes I did say the truth.

In another exchance with Spencer, he recalls:

[Spencer] You knew on Aug. 16 that other Al Qaeda members were in the United States?
[Moussaoui] That’s correct.
[Spencer] You knew there was a pending plot?
[Moussaoui] That’s correct.
[Spencer] You lied because you wanted to conceal that you were a member of Al Qaeda?
[Moussaoui] That’s correct.
[Spencer] You lied so the plan could go forward?
[Moussoui] That’s correct.

These statements provided supporting material to the prosecution for the case against Moussaoui, as he now not only had affirmed claim 4 of conspiring to use aircraft as missiles against buildings in the US, but also being part of the 9/11 plot (claim 5), and not only having had foreknowledge of 9/11 (claim 2), but also having had specific foreknowledge of 9/11 as to timing, target, and participants of the attack. This he concealed from the FBI as it could have stopped or hampered the development of the plot (claim 3).
At no time, however, did the prosecution indict Moussaoui of being the “20th hijacker”, nor did he himself seriously entertain this idea. This is not only evidenced by the lack of any such reference in the court transcripts, but also by an explicite denial of such allegation during an exchange between Moussaoui and defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin.

[Lawyer Zerkin] Mr. Moussaoui, it was not in the indictment, was it? You were not charged with being the 20th hijacker, correct?
[Moussaoui] There was only four plane. Okay? There was only four plane. There was never four. Whatever, when we are talking about four plane, I was not into the picture.
[Zerkin] The government was – the indictment said that you lied to [FBI] Agent Smith, right?
[Moussaoui] Yes, that´s correct.
[Zerkin] Right. It didn´t say anything about your – that you were supposed to be one of the hijackers on those four planes, correct?
[Moussaoui] No it didn´t.
[Zerkin] Okay.

2006, May 3 – Moussaoui sentenced to life in prison on three charges

After a few days of deliberation, the Grand Jury read the verdict into the record. Moussaoui was convicted on three of the six charges: To commit acts of terrorism (i), to destroy aircraft (iii), and to use weapons of mass destruction (iv). He was sentenced to six consecutive life terms in prison.
The verdict included references to 9/11 like the notion that “the Government has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions of defendant, Zacarias Moussaoui, where intended to cause, and did cause, tremendous disruption to the city of New York” (p. 3). Only three of the twelfe jurors judged that “Zacarius [sic] Moussaoui had limited knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans” (p. 9). None of them judged that “Moussaouis testimony about his plan to fly a plane into the White House is unreliable and is contradicted by his statements about other plots he was involved in” (p. 8).

2006, May 8 – Post Script: Moussaoui stepping back again

Five days after the jury imposed the life sentence on him, Moussaoui in an affidavit to judge Brinkema titled his claim to have been a member of the 9/11 plot a “complete fabrication”, and asked for a new trial. The request was denied since federal rules prohibit withdrawing a guilty plea after sentencing.


The Unsatisfying Conclusion

Let us go back and review the questions posed in the editorial of this article.

A. Was Moussaoui supposed to be the 20th Hijacker on 9/11?
Moussaoui: No.
Jury: No.

B. Did Moussaoui have foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot?
Moussaoui: Yes, according to his testimony on July 18, 2002, and March 27, 2006.
Jury: Yes.

C. Did Moussaoui have foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot, which, if discovered, could have stopped or hampered the development of the plot?
Moussaoui: Yes, according to his testimony on July 18, 2002, and March 27, 2006.
Jury: Yes, although some jurors think his knowledge about the plot was pretty limited.

D. Was Moussaoui part of a plot to use aircraft as missiles against buildings in the US?
Moussaoui: Yes, according to his testimony on July 18, 2002, April 25, 2005, and March 27, 2006.
Jury: Yes.

E. Was Moussaoui part of the 9/11 plot?
Moussaoui: Yes, according to his testimony on March 27, 2006. No, according to his testimony on April 25, 2005, and his affidavit on May 8, 2006.
Jury: Yes, although some jurors think his knowledge about the plot was pretty limited.

The picture, then, is not completely clear, as is Moussaouis role in the 9/11 plot. “[A] case that began with unfounded certainty, and endured through unremitting chaos, ends with deep and lasting ambiguities,” legal analyst Andrew Cohen concludes.


Notable links

A member of the defense team looks back on the trial:

Trial coverage by legal journalist Edward Adams, including links to transcripts:

An early sceptical Slate article about the notion of Moussaoui being the 20th hijacker:

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