Zacarias Moussaoui may be the first defendant convicted in U.S. courts in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but his guilty plea yesterday did little to answer the biggest remaining riddle in the case: Was Moussaoui supposed to be one of the hijackers that day?
Maybe, Moussaoui said officially. And no, he said after that.
The statement of facts included as part of Moussaoui's plea said the French citizen was part of a conspiracy "to fly planes into American buildings" that culminated in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people. It said Moussaoui had been personally selected by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden "to participate in the operation" and that bin Laden told him: "Sahrawi, remember your dream."
Yet minutes after agreeing to these written allegations, Moussaoui said in a rambling monologue in Alexandria's federal courthouse that he was not part of the attacks but was involved in a separate plot to fly an airplane into the White House in order to free Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is imprisoned for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Moussaoui also said he planned to argue that he should avoid the death penalty because he was not directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I came to the United States of America to be part, okay, of a conspiracy to use airplane as a weapon of mass destruction," Moussaoui said. "I was being trained on the 747 . . . to eventually use this plane . . . to strike the White House. But this conspiracy was a different conspiracy from September 11."
That's not necessarily how the U.S. justice system sees it, however. With his guilty pleas, Moussaoui has admitted to training with al Qaeda, to pursuing flight lessons for an attack on the United States and to lying to investigators "to allow his al Qaeda 'brothers' to go forward with the operation to fly planes into American buildings." Whether Moussaoui was part of Sept. 11 or some other plot is immaterial, officials say.
Still, since Vice President Cheney suggested that Moussaoui may have planned to be the 20th hijacker, questions have been raised about whether he was supposed to be on the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field and never made it to its destination -- presumably in Washington. Yesterday's proceeding not only leaves Moussaoui's precise role in doubt, it reignites questions about the broader hijacking plot and whether al Qaeda had firm plans to conduct a second wave of attacks on U.S. targets.
"If we thought by the end of the day we would find the holy grail as to exactly what the genesis of 9/11 was and what Moussaoui's role in it was, we have been sorely disappointed," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of the Rand Corp. "This contradiction in his behavior raises more questions than it answers. The book still isn't closed on 9/11, I'm afraid."
The fact that Moussaoui's denial of involvement in Sept. 11 came during one of his now-familiar outbursts in federal court also served as a reminder of the significant difficulties the Justice Department faces in prosecuting complex terrorism cases. It remains uncertain whether the sentencing phase of the case will go any smoother, or whether it will divulge much new information about the plot.
"This is a resolution in some way, but in terms of answering the question of who in fact was Moussaoui and how big was the al Qaeda conspiracy, that is still up in the air," said Juliette Kayyem, head of the national security program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration. "The case has been a disaster from the beginning . . . and there's just no proof that the circus is going to end."
Most of the items outlined in the five-page statement of facts Moussaoui signed yesterday have been disclosed previously, by the government or by the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. Among other things, the statement said that Moussaoui enjoyed high esteem within al Qaeda because he ran a guesthouse for the group in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and that he "communicated directly" with bin Laden.
The statement also echoed many of the findings of the Sept. 11 commission, which provided a vivid account of Moussaoui's activities and how they mirrored the preparations of Mohamed Atta and the 18 other hijackers.
The commission reported that Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said Moussaoui was tapped for a second wave of attacks, but the panel went on to cast doubt on the veracity of that claim. Another Sept. 11 conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh, told interrogators that he believed Moussaoui was being groomed to join the hijacking teams, the commission said.
The commission concluded that any second wave plans were ill-formed and that, instead, Moussaoui was probably being prepared as a replacement for pilot Ziad Samir Jarrah, whose loyalty to the cause was in question for a time.
But yesterday in court, Moussaoui denied those suggestions.
"You can't point to me a single statement here which say Mr. Moussaoui came into the United States to participate into the 9/11, okay, and that's not my conspiracy," he said.