By Jerry Markon and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
The courtroom was silent, the jurors somber, as a prosecutor yesterday relived a great national tragedy. Yet in a corner of the room, one man smiled.
The final moments of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, were on display in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin said flight attendants reported the emergency as attackers took over the cabin. He recalled the chilling tones of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in a message inadvertently broadcast to air traffic control: "We have some planes."
The moment Raskin described the plane hitting the tower, Zacarias Moussaoui nodded, a smile creasing his lips. As he left the courtroom, where jurors will determine whether he lives or dies for his role in the attacks of that day, he pumped his fist and shouted, "God curse America!"
The scenes from the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history were familiar to many Americans, yet they held a special resonance, because it was the first time they were unveiled in a court of law. Moussaoui, 37, is the only person convicted in the United States in connection with the attacks. Yesterday was the first full day of testimony in his death penalty trial.
It was a day of strong emotions all around as jurors and relatives of the victims saw pictures of the 19 hijackers flashed on television screens and heard in vast detail about how they prepared to use four captive airplanes as missiles.
"Whoa!" Rosemary Dillard, whose husband, Eddie, died on the flight that hit the Pentagon, exclaimed outside the courtroom later. She and other family members, who sat a few feet from Moussaoui, called it the most chilling and detailed account of the hijackings they had yet heard.
"I think the prosecutors had to do that. We had to relive it again to make a point about what this is all about," Dillard said. "We had to make a point to all terrorists."
Moussaoui seemed unfazed by it all, smiling at some moments and silently stroking his beard at others. At one point, he spoke along in Arabic as prosecutors played a tape of Osama bin Laden praising the hijackers.
A few rows away sat Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, who said she hardly recognized her son and called him "too fat and too lethargic." El-Wafi, who flew in from France for the trial's first few days, said Moussaoui is "mad at me" because she has spoken to his attorneys, with whom her son does not speak. She added that "the United States needs a guilty man. They made a scapegoat of him, but on his own agreement."
El-Wafi did not return to court after the lunch break yesterday and was seen scurrying down a nearby street, trying to outpace a gaggle of photographers and television cameras.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11 plot. He said bin Laden had instructed him to fly an airplane into the White House, but he denied any involvement in the terrorist attacks that day.
In their opening statements Monday, prosecutors portrayed Moussaoui as a hardened terrorist operative, saying he should die because he lied to investigators when he was arrested a month before Sept. 11. If he had revealed all he knew about the plot, prosecutors contended, the attacks could have been prevented and nearly 3,000 lives could have been spared.
Defense attorneys countered that Moussaoui is bumbling and unstable, and they said he had no specific knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. Homing in on the government's failure to prevent 9/11, they argued that investigators ignored warning signs before the attacks and likewise would have failed to act on Moussaoui's information.
Prosecutors began building their case yesterday by barely mentioning the defendant, instead laying out what they learned during the broader Sept. 11 investigation. Known as PENTTBOM, the 9/11 probe initially involved virtually the entire FBI, at least 10,000 agents, FBI agent James M. Fitzgerald testified.
Fitzgerald offered minute details of how the hijackers planned and financed the attacks while moving freely around the United States, under their own names, after they started arriving in 2000. Most of the information had emerged previously in media accounts or the report of the independent commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Edward B. MacMahon Jr., Fitzgerald acknowledged that there was no evidence of any contact between Moussaoui and the hijackers. Moussaoui's role in the plot remains unclear, and prosecutors have said they do not intend to prove his precise mission. But he took a series of actions before Sept. 11 that closely mirrored those of the hijackers, including buying two knives and taking flying lessons.
MacMahon also elicited testimony that the FBI knew in the early 1990s that al-Qaeda was sending pilots to U.S. flight schools, including the Oklahoma school where Moussaoui trained nearly a decade later. FBI special agent Michael Anticev testified that investigators thought the trained pilots would work only within bin Laden's organization.
At day's end, prosecutors triggered strong emotions from 9/11 family members by reading the same detailed account of each hijacked flight -- from the moment it pushed back from the gate until it crashed -- that Raskin did for Flight 11.
"I feel very strongly that today was a hard day, but it was a good day," Dillard said.