ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui offered last month to testify for prosecutors against himself at his death-penalty trial and told agents that he did not want to die in prison, according to dramatic last-minute testimony Tuesday.
The bizarre testimony capped a trial that has seen more than its share of the unusual over three tumultuous weeks. Introduced as part of a brief government rebuttal case, this testimony may be the firmest evidence the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent hopes for martyrdom through execution and could provide fodder for the closing arguments of both prosecutors and Moussaoui’s court-appointed defense attorneys.
Moussaoui offered on Feb. 2, just before jury selection began, to testify that he was to have hijacked and piloted a fifth plane on Sept. 11, 2001. He did not ask that prosecutors stop pursuing the death penalty in return. He sought only better conditions in prison and a promise not to be called to testify against other al-Qaida members.
FBI agent James Fitzgerald said Moussaoui told him — in a jailhouse meeting the defendant requested — that he did not want to die behind bars and it was “different to die in a battle ... than in a jail on a toilet.” Moussaoui dropped this bid after he learned that he had an absolute right to testify in his own defense.
The defense in the case rested Tuesday after two more high-ranking al-Qaida operatives cast doubt on whether Moussaoui was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with one portraying him as a misfit who refused to follow orders.
Stunning admission on Monday
On Monday, he stunned the court by asserting that he was to fly a 747 jetliner into the White House on 9/11, despite having claimed for three years that he had no role in the Sept. 11 plot. Instead, he had said his attack was to be part of a possible later assault.
The February meeting was to have been off the record but was introduced by prosecutors at the end of testimony in the case to rebut a defense exhibit. Closing its case Tuesday, the defense had introduced a partial transcript of Moussaoui’s guilty plea last April.
In the pleading, Moussaoui said, “Everybody knows that I’m not 9/11 material.” He said 9/11 “is not my conspiracy.” He said he was going to attack the White House if the United States did not release radical Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, imprisoned for other terrorist crimes.
Closing arguments and instructions to the jury were expected Wednesday.
Because Moussaoui has already pleaded guilty, 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.
The jury was to begin deliberations immediately, according to NBC News. Five alternate jurors for Moussaoui’s trial will be drawn from a hat, NBC News reported on Tuesday. Even though they are alternates, their notebooks will be impounded and they will remain sequestered from any news of the trial, NBC said.
The testimony of both al-Qaida operatives was read to the jury, in one case because the witness is a captive whom the U.S. government did not want to appear in court.
One, identified as Sayf al-Adl, a senior member of al-Qaida’s military committee, stated that sometime between Sept. 1, 2001, and late July 2004, Moussaoui was “a confirmed jihadist but was absolutely not going to take part in the Sept. 11, 2001, mission.” The 9/11 commission reported that the U.S. had recovered from a safehouse in Pakistan a letter written by al-Adl describing the various candidates considered for the Sept. 11 attacks.
The other operative — Waleed bin Attash, often known simply as Khallad — is considered the mastermind of the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and an early planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot. Khallad, who was captured in April 2003, said he knew of no part that Moussaoui was to have played in the 9/11 attacks.
Testimony supports 9/11 organizer’s claims
Their testimony backs up the claims of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief organizer of the 9/11 attacks. He said in testimony read to the jury Monday that Moussaoui had nothing to do with the plot but was to have been used for a second wave of attacks distinct from Sept. 11.
Moussaoui said for the first time Monday that he was supposed to pilot a fifth plane in the 9/11 plot and attack the White House. He had previously denied a role in 9/11 and claimed to be part of a different plot.
The defense introduced an array of written testimony from these captives that was read to the jurors in an effort to undercut Moussaoui’s dramatic testimony Monday. His lawyers were trying to undo damage he might have done to himself when he testified against their wishes.
Breached security measures
Khallad portrayed Moussaoui as a loose cannon during a trip to Malaysia in 2000, where he met members of a radical group affiliated with al-Qaida. Khallad said Moussaoui breached security measures and al-Qaida protocol.
For example, he called Khallad daily, despite instructions to call only in an emergency, to the point where Khallad turned his cell phone off.
Another witness, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who served as a paymaster and facilitator for the Sept. 11 operation from his post in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said he had seen Moussaoui at an al-Qaida guesthouse in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the first half of 2001, but was never introduced to him or conducted operations with him.
Al-Hawsawi said he provided money and tickets to four of the Sept. 11 hijackers and to a fifth man, identified as Muhammed al-Qahtani, who was to be a hijacker but was denied entry to the United States before Sept. 11 in Orlando, Fla.
In the written statement, Al-Hawsawi quoted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as describing al-Qahtani as the last hijacker for the mission who would “complete the group.”
Was al-Qahtani to be the 20th hijacker?
Thus it appeared al-Qahtani was the so-called missing 20th hijacker of Sept. 11, a role the government initially thought Moussaoui was to have played before his arrest a month earlier.
Also Tuesday, defense attorney Alan Yamamoto read a summary of three Federal Aviation Administration intelligence reports on hijacking from the late 1990s and 2000, reports that concluded a hijacked airliner could be flown into a building or national landmark in the U.S. However, this was “viewed as an option of last resort.”
The FAA had reports of questionable reliability that Osama bin Laden had discussed suicide hijackings and had discussed hijacking a U.S. air carrier in an effort to free the imprisoned Rahman.
But the reports concluded that crashing a jetliner into a building appeared to be an unlikely option for the goal of winning Rahman’s release because it offered no time to negotiate.
The FAA was more concerned that bin Laden might try to hijack a U.S. carrier and take the American passengers as hostages to Afghanistan to deter a U.S. military strike there.
Last year, when he pleaded guilty, Moussaoui had said his plot to hijack a 747 and fly it into the White House was supposed to occur if the U.S. refused to release Rahman.
Moussaoui’s testimony Monday that he was part of the 9/11 plot along with would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid flew in the face of his previous denials that he had 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, who said Moussaoui was to have been used in a second wave of attacks completely disconnected from Sept. 11.
Moussaoui is the only person in this country charged in the Sept. 11 attacks, during which hijackers crashed passenger jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Mohammed is in custody abroad in undisclosed circumstances, having been interrogated but not yet charged.
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.
Moussaoui’s defense attorneys, in their opening arguments, suggested Moussaoui may prefer execution, which he would see as martyrdom, to life in prison. He isn’t cooperating with his court-appointed attorneys.
In his testimony, Mohammed 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.
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.