A Terrorist's Grand Delusion

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Zacarias Moussaoui proved to be about as effective a defense witness as he was a hijacker.

The 9/11 conspirator had planned to fly a hijacked airliner into the White House, but he got arrested before the attack and had to sit it out. Yesterday, fighting the death penalty in an Alexandria courtroom, he took the stand -- over his lawyers' strenuous objections -- and pretty much destroyed the defense his team had built.

He readily agreed that he was part of the 9/11 plot. "I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House," he said, and he knew of the World Trade Center attacks but lied to prevent authorities from stopping them.

"You rejoiced in the fact that Americans were killed?" the prosecutor asked.

"That is correct," Moussaoui said, matter-of-factly.

You called the collapse of the twin towers "gorgeous"?

"Indeed."

You asserted that "3,000 miscreant disbelievers" burned in a "hellfire"?

"That is correct."

The terrorist's lawyers from the public defender's office knew they were undone. "All our hard work down the tubes," one of them lamented to reporters.

Moussaoui acted as if he were the villain on a TV detective show who, confronted with his crime, improbably confesses every detail of the plot -- even volunteering that in e-mails to his handlers he pretended he was writing to a girlfriend and called the attack a "bottle of champagne."

The terrorist gave the prosecutors just what they needed: evidence that his lies to investigators in August 2001 prevented them from thwarting the attack. Just as prosecution witnesses wound up aiding the defense earlier in the trial, Moussaoui was a gift to prosecutors. The Justice Department wants the death penalty; Moussaoui spoke like a man who wants martyrdom.

This led to a day-long role reversal in which Moussaoui's own lawyers tried to paint him as crazy. "I would suggest that he does not recognize the authority of the court," defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin pleaded to Judge Leonie M. Brinkema as the defendant donned an amused expression. "He would not be a competent witness."

Prosecutor Robert A. Spencer defended the accused. "It would be unfair to deny him the opportunity to testify," he argued.

In fact, Moussaoui seemed to be all too sane. He saved his outbursts -- "Victory for Moussaoui!" "God curse you, Zerkin!" -- for the moments just after the jury had left the room. When the jury was in, he was calm, looking more loser than monster.

In a green prison jumpsuit and white skullcap, Moussaoui wore an unkempt beard and several spare pounds, a look enhanced by the shock belt he must wear to prevent misbehavior. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, and two bruises colored his forehead -- likely the result of banging the floor during prayer. He carried a yellow legal pad with Post-its and a cardboard legal portfolio, and he spent the session stroking his beard and cracking his wrists. Only his refusal to stand for the judge and jury and his constant silent lip movements -- either prayer or muttering -- hinted at the anger within.

For a terrorist, Moussaoui was particular about his manners. He yawned at least 10 times, but made sure to cover his mouth. When Spencer asked if he had used an obscenity to describe America, Moussaoui replied: "Never! . . . The F-word? I never said such a thing."

He seemed to enjoy telling his war stories and explaining Islamic law. He professed that he used the alias "Shaquille" because it is a Muslim name, but also because of "Shaquille O'Neal the basketball player." He said Islam allows lying in three instances: in jihad, to bring reconciliation between Muslims, and in marriage, "if a wife asks her husband, 'Am I beautiful?' and she is 60 years old."

Brinkema, 61, smiled.

Moussaoui was intent on being heard. When his French-accented voice caused distortion in the speakers, marshals pulled the microphone away, but he invariably rolled his eyes and moved it closer. "That's too far," he protested at one point; even some of the victims' family members had to laugh.

He showed considerable modesty for a terrorist. He insisted he was "not a big shot" in al-Qaeda. He said he had trouble renewing his French passport because he had put it in a waterproof money belt that "was not so waterproof." And he admitted that his big mouth got him into trouble with al-Qaeda colleagues ("I had to meet directly with Sheik Osama").

But he spoke about his murderous intentions with chilling dispassion. Asked if he had been trained to cut a person's throat, he answered: "No, anybody can do that. . . . To cut the throat of somebody is not difficult."

The jurors, mostly a white, professional bunch, were rapt, staring at the defendant with wide eyes suggesting horror or disgust. Defense lawyers offered gallows smiles; they took few notes and raised few objections as their client spoke.

Zerkin, having little to work with, rambled on with extraneous questions about Moussaoui's past. The jury foreman yawned. One juror closed his eyes. Even Moussaoui, who had no place better to be, glanced at the clock. Spencer objected; Brinkema agreed.

"I think we're waaay beyond relevance," the judge said.

That was for certain. The relevant fact was that Moussaoui acted as though he would be pleased to die. When the prosecutor tried to get him to say that capital punishment would not constitute martyrdom, the terrorist replied: "It depends on if you fought to the best of your ability."

"So dying here would not get you to paradise?" Spencer pressed.

"I didn't say so," Moussaoui corrected.

"I believe in destiny," he added, to Zerkin's questioning. "I just have to speak the truth and God will take care of me." In the audience, family members muttered. A woman kicked the bench in front of her.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company