FBI Knew al-Qaeda Pilots Training in U.S.
Agency Knew of Flight Training Before 9/11, Moussaoui Jury Told
Tuesday, March 7, 2006; 12:57 PM
A top FBI expert on the al-Qaeda terrorist network testified in court today that the agency knew before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, had sent followers to an Oklahoma flight school to train as pilots and was interested in hijacking airplanes.
FBI agent Michael Anticev said investigators understood that bin Laden used the flight school in Norman, Okla., to train pilots to fly his own aircraft. He also acknowledged that the FBI knew before the Sept. 11 attacks that al-Qaeda was training pilots to hijack planes, but he said the agency believed the aim was to carry out conventional hijackings and fly the aircraft to other countries, rather than crash them into buildings.
The testimony came on the second day of the penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, a 37-year-old French citizen of Moroccan origin who is the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui, an avowed al-Qaeda member, has pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts related to the attacks, and the government is trying to persuade a federal jury that he deserves the death penalty.
In an opening statement yesterday, federal prosecutor Robert A. Spencer argued that Moussaoui effectively participated in the Sept. 11 plot by lying to federal agents following his August 2001 arrest in Minnesota, where he was attending a flight school. If not for his lies, federal authorities would have disrupted the plot, and nearly 3,000 lives would have been saved, the prosecutor argued.
A court-appointed defense attorney, Edward B. MacMahon Jr., countered that federal authorities ignored other warning signs before Sept. 11 and argued that they would not necessarily have been able to thwart the plot even if Moussaoui had told the truth upon his arrest on an immigration charge.
MacMahon sought to press that argument today in cross-examination of the government's first witness, Anticev.
The FBI agent, a counterterrorism expert in the agency's New York office, provided background information on al-Qaeda as the prosecution played videotapes showing bin Laden and top lieutenants laughing about the Sept. 11 attacks and warning of future strikes. The tapes have previously been shown on Arabic and other television networks.
MacMahon then sought to turn the tables on the prosecution, saying he wanted to cross-examine Anticev only about what the FBI knew before Sept. 11.
Anticev said the FBI knew of two al Qaeda members -- neither of them among the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers -- who had trained at the flight school in Norman, Okla. "But at the time we just knew that he [bin Laden] was trying to train pilots for his aircraft," Anticev said. One of the two was later arrested, he said.
Anticev also said the FBI knew before Sept. 11 that al Qaeda was training pilots to hijack planes for what were thought to be conventional purposes, not suicide missions. He said the FBI knew in the early 1990s that al-Qaeda members were getting combat training in how to use short knives. The Sept. 11 hijackers used box cutters to take over four commercial jetliners because the short-bladed knives were then permitted in carry-on baggage.
The Washington Post reported in Sept. 2001 that federal authorities were aware for years that suspected terrorists with ties to bin Laden were receiving flight training at schools in the United States and abroad.
In 1998, FBI agents questioned officials from Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla, about a graduate later identified as a pilot for bin Laden, the Post reported. Ihab Ali Nawawi, a bin Laden associate whose name surfaced during a trial for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, obtained a commercial pilot's license from Airman in the early 1990s before going to another school in Oklahoma City to take another course.