Dec. 14 — His arrest on Aug. 16 poses one of the great what-ifs of the war on terrorism—the possibility, remote but tantalizing, that FBI agents working in Minneapolis might have discovered the Sept. 11 hijacking conspiracy before it happened.
AS NEWSWEEK.MSNBC.COM REPORTED on Oct. 1, the FBI’s own lawyers decided in early September that the evidence against Zacarias Moussaoui wasn’t strong enough to justify a search warrant and the investigation stalled. But this week’s sweeping federal indictment alleges that Moussaoui was indeed part of the hijacking plot—he was supposed to be the 20th hijacker, according to the Feds—and makes him the primary defendant in the U.S. attempt to convict Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden before the court of world opinion.
A burly, French-born Moroccan with a shaved head and a history of Muslim radicalism, Moussaoui, 33, entered the United States last February and immediately began trying to learn to fly. He washed out of flight school in Norman, Okla., and moved on to the Pan Am International Flying Academy in Eagan, Minn., where he paid $8,000 to use flight simulators designed to train commercial pilots. His instructors became suspicious, and the school called the FBI, which detained Moussaoui on Aug. 17 on immigration charges. Held as a material witness after Sept. 11, he has been in jail ever since.
At the time of his arrest FBI agents found flight manuals for the Boeing 747-400, a flight-simulator computer program, binoculars, two knives, fighting shields and a laptop computer. They later learned that French intelligence officials suspected Moussaoui of involvement with Islamic extremists. The FBI team applied to Washington for a special warrant to go into Moussaoui’s computer but were turned down: as it turned out, a disc contained information about spraying pesticide from a plane. “All I can tell you is that the agents on the scene attempted to follow up aggressively,” FBI director Robert Mueller said this week. “The attorneys back at the FBI determined that there was insufficient probable cause for a [warrant], which appears to be an accurate decision. And September 11 happened.”
Then there are the disturbing similarities between Moussaoui and Mohamed Atta, federal sources say. Atta visited the same flight school in Norman, Okla., that Moussaoui attended, although Atta wound up taking flight training in Florida. Atta and Moussaoui both researched using crop dusters for what might have been a biochemical attack, and Atta and Moussaoui both bought “flight deck” instructional videos for the Boeing 747 from the same retailer, Sporty’s Pilot Shop in Batavia, Ohio. Based on an interview with a woman who lived downstairs from Moussaoui in Norman, Okla., NEWSWEEK reported in mid-October that Moussaoui ordered videos on the 747-200 and 747-400—a finding now included in the indictment.
Moussaoui by all accounts had not cooperated with U.S. investigators prior to his indictment this week. Fellow inmates said he cheered at the news of the Sept. 11 attacks and in October he wrote a confident letter to his mother, Aicha, in France. “As far as the American story is concerned, don’t worry, I didn’t do anything, and I’ll prove it when the time comes,” Moussaoui wrote. “They are going to try to fabricate proofs and witnesses, but I have proofs and witnesses, and Allah will make their plot ridiculous.” In the meantime, Moussaoui said, “do not think I am unhappy or that I am desperate. I am fine.”
In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Aicha Moussaoui said she knew nothing about her son’s alleged involvement with Al Qaeda and had not seen him since 1997. She also said she is “devastated” by his indictment. “I don’t trust American justice,” she said. “They find somebody and then they charge him with anything. It is just like he wrote in his letter—they make up proofs.”
In court on Dec. 13, though, Moussaoui’s lawyer was defiant. “We are conceding nothing,” Donald D. DuBoulay, a court-appointed attorney, told reporters. He said Moussaoui intended to plead not guilty. “The charges are not true. He maintains his innocence.”
But will Moussaoui change his mind and cooperate with the U.S. authorities in the investigation of bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members? He has a powerful incentive to do so—four of the six charges against him carry the death penalty. (French officials have already said they will oppose the imposition of the death penalty if Moussaoui is convicted. In Paris on Friday, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, a lawyer who represents Moussaoui’s family, asked French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to intervene in the case and to work to get Moussaoui repatriated to France to stand trial saying Moussaoui could not receive a fair trial in the United States.)
Whether or not Moussaoui will provide answers to urgent questions about the Sept. 11 attacks could come on Jan. 2, when he is scheduled to be arraigned. By then, Moussaoui’s cooperation could be less important. At that point, Osama bin Laden could be a far more important prisoner.
With Christopher Dickey and Samia Marais in Paris, Michael Isikoff, Daniel Klaidman and Mark Hosenball in Washington and Stefan Theil in Germany
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2013 Newsweek, Inc.