9/11 Architect Tells Court He Hopes for Martyrdom

A courtroom sketch shows Tawfiq bin Attash, left, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed at their arraignment hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A courtroom sketch shows Tawfiq bin Attash, left, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed at their arraignment hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, June 5 -- Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, appeared publicly Thursday for the first time since his capture five years ago and calmly told a U.S. military court that he hopes for a death sentence that will allow him to die "a martyr."

Sitting at the front of a line of five detainees accused of carrying out the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history, Mohammed stroked his long, bushy gray beard and spoke in confident English of his contempt for the U.S. Constitution and the military commissions designed to try him.

Calling the process an "inquisition," Mohammed told Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, the presiding judge, that he wants to represent himself at trial and looks forward to the death penalty.

"Yes, this is what I wish," Mohammed said, toying with his eyeglasses. "I have [been] looking to be a martyr from long time. I will, God willing, have this, by you. I understand very well."

Clad in white tunics and turbans, Mohammed and four other alleged top al-Qaeda operatives emerged Thursday morning from the shadows of their lengthy detention to face arraignment in one of the most anticipated trials in U.S. history. The men, accused of being at the heart of the terrorist conspiracy that shook the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, are charged with orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Americans on airplanes, in New York skyscrapers and at the Pentagon.

The government case is largely designed to obtain death sentences against them. Even acquittal would probably leave the men in U.S. custody indefinitely. The government has determined them to be "enemy combatants" and serious threats to the United States and its allies.

Thursday's arraignment was just the first step in what is certain to be a lengthy and contentious legal process, one that is likely to put the untested military-commissions system itself on trial. Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the chief legal adviser for the military commissions, argued Wednesday that the trials will be "fair, just and transparent," but defense lawyers have said that the system is a sham and that justice cannot be pursued in the courtrooms of this island military base.

Mohammed, appearing as leader and elder statesman of the group, quickly took center stage at Thursday's hearing, railing against President Bush and his "crusades" in Iraq and Afghanistan. He appeared to orchestrate a last-minute strategy that could prove a major disruption to the trials.

After conferring openly with his alleged co-conspirators, who were seated at defense tables on the left side of the courtroom, Mohammed disavowed the system created to try him. He refused representation from any American citizen, saying he objects to any system outside Islamic religious law. He vowed to move ahead as his own lawyer at trial.

Tawfiq bin Attash, a 30-year-old Yemeni who is accused of being part of the conspiracy, quickly followed suit, answering questions from the judge and closely conferring with Mohammed. Ramzi Binalshibh, 36, also said he wanted to act on his own and spoke of seeking the death penalty.

"I have been seeking martyrdom for five years," he said. "I tried for 9/11 to get a visa, and I could not. If this martyrdom happens today, I welcome it. God is great, God is great, God is great."

Binalshibh was the lone defendant shackled during the proceedings, and only at the ankles.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company