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.
Army Maj. Jon Jackson, a military lawyer for Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, said late in the afternoon that his client was subjected to "intimidation by the co-accused" as part of their courtroom conversations. Defense attorneys said they were shocked that the court would allow alleged co-conspirators -- especially ones held in isolation for years -- to so openly converse on the first day they were all brought together.
Kohlmann accepted the requests of Mohammed, bin Attash and Ammar al-Baluchi to represent themselves, but said he would take more time to consider the requests from Binalshibh and Hawsawi. Binalshibh apparently is taking medication, and his lawyers argued that he could not make the decision on his own.
Kohlmann did not accept pleas Thursday.
Mohammed often sat back in his chair and removed his black-rimmed glasses to flip through documents, contemplative, sometimes turning his back to the judge and smiling at the other detainees. Mohammed, who said he was 43, looked much older and slimmer than the disheveled, mustachioed captive in the photo that was widely distributed after his arrest in 2003. When shown a courtroom sketch of himself, he objected to the image and wanted his nose to be redrawn smaller.
Mohammed indicated that he had been told not to say anything about the countries where he had been detained by the CIA before his transfer to Guantanamo in September 2006, or about the details of what he called his "torturing."
All five defendants appeared animated and engaged, at times answering questions in English, although some requested interpreters. Binalshibh, wearing a black skull cap and a dark, full beard, smiled and several times conveyed messages from Mohammed to the back rows, where Baluchi (whose formal name is Ali Abdul Aziz Ali) and Hawsawi sat.
The detainees were brought into the courtroom from a row of five tiny, cream-colored holding cells, 40 paces down a wide concrete walk surrounded by black mesh netting and enormous coils of concertina wire. A set of heavy, black double doors gives way to the 4,800-square-foot, gray-carpeted courtroom, its white walls bare except for the armed services' medallions and a large American flag affixed behind the judge's bench.
Military officials escorted nearly 60 members of the domestic and international media to Guantanamo for the hearing this week, and as many as 29 were allowed to watch from behind a plexiglass window in an observation room at the back of the courtroom. But the victims of the defendants' alleged conspiracy, and their relatives, were notably absent from the proceedings. They were given no option to view or attend the hearings.
"That was a mistake," Hartmann said. "We'll make sure that doesn't happen again."
Carie Lemack, co-founder of Families of September 11, said she repeatedly told Defense Department and Justice Department officials that members of her group wanted to attend the arraignments.
"We consider this the murder trial of our loved ones," said Lemack, whose mother was on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. ". . . I don't know why 9/11 victims should be treated any differently than any other victims."
Also absent from the courtroom was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's fugitive leader, who is mentioned 18 times in the 23-page conspiracy charge sheets but has evaded global efforts to capture or kill him. Mohammed, who has long been considered the architect of the attacks, has remained the government's top target for prosecution among the hundreds of alleged terrorists captured overseas.
Officials have said Mohammed originally suggested the hijacking plot against U.S. interests to bin Laden. Mohammed allegedly admitted his role to U.S. interrogators after facing an extreme interrogation regimen that included waterboarding, or simulated drowning. The CIA has acknowledged that he was subjected to "the waterboard" but has not detailed other aspects of his detention.
Shortly after his transfer, along with 13 others, from secret CIA custody to Guantanamo in September 2006, Mohammed told a Combatant Status Review Tribunal that he was responsible for numerous terrorist attacks and plots around the world, including "the 9/11 operation, from A to Z." He said the plan to hijack airplanes and fly them into major U.S. landmarks was an act of war against an oppressor, and described himself as the operations director.
Binalshibh allegedly was the primary communications intermediary between the Sept. 11 hijackers and al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and had close ties to hijacker Mohamed Atta, whom he met in Hamburg, Germany, in 1995.
Hawsawi, 39, of Saudi Arabia, allegedly helped finance the attacks, working with Mohammed to move money to the hijackers and help facilitate their travel into the United States. He allegedly told U.S. interrogators that he bought airplane tickets for some of the hijackers in the United Arab Emirates and was in close contact with Atta in the days before Sept. 11, according to an affidavit filed in federal court as part of the case against convicted conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Baluchi, 29, of Pakistan, is Mohammed's nephew and a cousin of convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. U.S. officials allege that he moved money to the hijackers and acted as a travel facilitator.
Bin Attash is accused of taking part in the Sept. 11 attacks by trying to obtain a U.S. visa, by conducting reconnaissance on U.S. airliners in Asia to assess in-flight security and by helping to identify potential hijackers. Allegedly a bodyguard for bin Laden and a jihadist fighter, bin Attash lost his right leg during a battlefield accident in Afghanistan in 1997.
Staff writer Carrie Johnson and staff researcher Julie Tate, both in Washington, contributed to this report.