Bin Laden: Moussaoui Played No Role in 9/11

By Jerry Markon and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Zacarias Moussaoui's role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was fiercely debated at his recent death penalty trial, with the al-Qaeda conspirator and prosecutors agreeing that he was to fly a fifth hijacked airplane into the White House and defense lawyers insisting he was lying.

Now, someone who ought to know has weighed in: Osama bin Laden.

The fugitive al-Qaeda leader issued a videotape yesterday in which he claims that Moussaoui had "no connection whatsoever with the events of September 11" and that he knows this because "I was responsible for entrusting the 19 brothers, Allah have mercy upon them, with those raids."

Bin Laden also says in the 4-minute, 34-second message that the hundreds of prisoners the U.S. military is holding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "have no connection whatsoever to the events of Sept. 11 and even stranger is that many of them have no connection with al-Qaeda in the first place."

It cannot be determined whether bin Laden is telling the truth, and a U.S. counterterrorism official said the tape is being analyzed. But the official said there is "no reason to doubt that it's real" and that it "was obviously done in recent weeks." The official said analysts believe that as in other recent al-Qaeda releases, bin Laden is trying "to appear relevant and to demonstrate that he's knowledgeable about current events."

Former CIA official Paul R. Pillar, who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, called the recording "a very clever statement" that is "capitalizing on the confusion surrounding the Moussaoui trial." Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison this month after a jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria declined to sentence him to death.

"I think given the difficulties of prosecuting that case and all of Moussaoui's bizarre back and forth, it certainly laid the groundwork for bin Laden or anybody else making this kind of statement," Pillar said. "He's partly taking advantage of an opportunity to present the U.S. system in a bad light."

Edward B. MacMahon Jr., a lawyer for Moussaoui, said he "never for a second believed Moussaoui had anything to do with the September 11 attacks. I would never pretend to vouch for the credibility of Osama bin Laden, but the evidence in the case was pretty overwhelming that Moussaoui was not involved."

Federal prosecutors in Alexandria declined to comment.

Moussaoui is the only person convicted in a U.S. court on charges stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks. He pleaded guilty last year to taking part in an al-Qaeda conspiracy that led to Sept. 11. Under federal law, prosecutors did not need to establish that he had a specific role on Sept. 11.

Yet the issue played a key role in the sentencing phase. Moussaoui testified that bin Laden instructed him to fly a plane into the White House with a crew that included "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. A juror interviewed by The Washington Post said he voted for life in prison primarily because he didn't believe Moussaoui and thought his "role in 9/11 was actually minor." The jury foreman told The Post that only one juror stood between Moussaoui and death after an 11 to 1 vote.

After he was sentenced, Moussaoui said he had fabricated his testimony.

Bin Laden made the same point in the video, which was a still photograph with a voice-over in Arabic. "If Moussaoui was studying aviation to become a pilot of one of the planes, then let him tell us the names of those assigned to help him control the plane," he said. "But he won't be able to tell us their names for a simple reason: that in fact they don't exist." A translation was provided by the SITE Institute, which monitors terrorist-related Web sites.

Yet bin Laden showed more respect for Moussaoui than some al-Qaeda leaders did when their comments to interrogators were read during the trial. They portrayed him as annoying, unable to follow directions, even crazy. Bin Laden addresses him as simply "honorable brother.''

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company