Zacarias Moussaoui

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Zacarias Moussaoui (born May 30, 1968) is a French terrorist of Moroccan descent involved in the conspiracy that resulted in the September 11, 2001 attacks. He was taken into custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in on August 16, 2001 after attending a flight school in Minnesota where an instructor expressed concerns about the abilities and motivations of his student. After the attacks unfolded, he was described as a possible "20th hijacker", though he maintained that he was uninvolved with that plan up until pleading guilty in April 2005 to charges brought against him. He is the only person in the United States to have been charged in connection with the September 11 attacks.



Moussauoi is said to have been a replacement for the "first" 20th hijacker, possibly Ramzi Binalshibh (bin al-Shibh), a member of the Hamburg cell. Binalshibh and Zakariyah Essabar were denied visas to the US, so the men allegedly scrambled to find another man to fill the spot. He followed a path similar to others known to have been involved, such as visiting terrorist training camps in the Middle East, purchasing knives while in the U.S., and attending some of the same flight schools. However, prosecutors in Moussaoui's drawn-out trial had difficulty directly connecting him to the 19 participants. He also saw the trial as an opportunity to have a soapbox to advertise Islamic fundamentalism and his views on America. He surprised onlookers by electing to represent himself in court, expressed contempt for the trial by introducing bizarre legal motions deriding Judge Leonie Brinkema, and rankled the federal prosecutors by requesting the presence of captured Al-Qaida members as witnesses in his case.

During the trial, Moussaoui stated that he was not involved in the September 11 attacks, but that he was planning an attack of his own. He stated that this plan involved hijacking a Boeing 747-400 in order to free the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, being held in Florence, Colorado, and return him to Afghanistan. Alternatively, he planned to crash the aircraft into the White House in Washington, D.C. Some Al-Qaida members reportedly corroborated Moussaoui's statement to an extent, saying that he was involved in a plot other than September 11, but prosecutors believed that his story had no merit. Prosecutors state that they will seek the death penalty in the case.

Personal history

Terrorist training

Moussaoui is known by other names, reportedly including Abu Khaled al Sahrawi. He holds a master's degree from South Bank University in London. His initial step into radical indoctrination likely happened in the city's Finsbury Park mosque in where extremist Abu Hamza held lessons.

French authorities began monitoring Moussaoui in 1996 when they observed him with Islamic extremists. In 1998, he attended the Khalden terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, allegedly returning the next year as well. In September 2000, he visited Malaysia and stayed in a condominium where two of the September 11 hijackers had lived in January of that year. Jemaah Islamiah leader Riduan Ismauddin, a.k.a. Hambali, sent cohort Yazid Sufaat to provide Moussaoui with $35,000 and travel documents in Malaysia in October.

Flight training

From February 26 to May 29, 2001, Moussaoui attended flight training courses at Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma aiming for Cessna certification. Despite more than 50 hours of flying lessons, he did not pass and left without a pilot's license. This school was visited by Mohamed Atta al Sayed and Marwan al-Shehhi, who are believed to have piloted planes into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, respectively. Atta and al-Shehhi took their pilot training at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida.

In early August, he allegedly received $14,000 in wire transfers from Ramzi Binalshibh (originating from Dusseldorf and Hamburg, Germany. This money could have helped him pay for flight training about two weeks later at Pan-Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota. On August 13, Moussaoui paid $6,800 with $100 bills to receive training in a 747-400 simulator. The simulator that Pan-Am uses is operated by Northwest Aerospace Training Corporation (NATCO), a training facility affiliated with Northwest Airlines.

The flight instructor assigned to Moussaoui, Clancy Prevost, began to have suspicions about his student. His behavior largely resembled that of other seemingly-wealthy men who had come to the center in the past to receive jumbo jet training despite the fact that they'd probably never use it, but some characteristics were unusual. Prevost said later that in pre-simulator instruction, Moussaoui would ask questions that had the right jargon but were otherwise nonsense. He had read through the 747 training manuals, but had a lack of understanding of the plane's systems. Prevost was confused as to why such a person would seek simulator time. After some convincing, his supervisors contacted the FBI, who came to meet with him. (Despite later reports, Moussaoui didn't eschew the training for takeoff and landing.)


On August 16, 2001, Moussaoui was arrested by the FBI in Minnesota and charged with an immigration violation. Some agents worried that his flight training had violent intentions, so the Minnesota bureau tried to get permission to search his laptop computer, but they were turned down. Other materials he had when he was arrested included two knives, 747 flight manuals, a flight simulator computer program, fighting gloves and shin guards, and a computer disk with information about crop dusting.

Leading in that research was agent Coleen Rowley which made explicit request for getting permission to research the personal rooms of Moussaoui. This request was first cut down by her boss Deputy General Counsel Marion "Spike" Bowman and later on rejected based upon FISA regulations (amended after 9/11 by Patriot Act, Bowman afterwards received a well paid bureau awards for "exceptional performance"). Several further attempts failed the very same way. Some officials just were in the opinion that in the past there was no arabic problem so there cannot be one now. As a result the chance of finding early evidence passed unused.

On the whole situation FBI watchdog Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller:

If the application for the FISA warrant had gone forward, agents would have found information in Moussaoui's belongings that linked him both to a major financier of the hijacking plot working out of Germany, and to a Malaysian al-Qaida boss who had met with at least two other hijackers while under surveillance by intelligence officials.

Court proceedings

After the attack, Moussaoui was implicated in the attack and in December, 2001 a federal grand jury in Virginia charged him with conspiracy "to murder thousands of innocent people in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania."

His trial opened in October 2002 in Alexandria, Virginia under the view of Judge Leonie Brinkema. Prior to the opening of the trial, Moussaoui, to the shock of his court-appointed attorneys, declined their assistance and asked to defend himself. Brinkema deemed him competent to defend himself and allowed the trial to move forward. Moussaoui has since requested the occasional assistance of attorneys to help him with technical issues.

Moussaoui has admitted his involvement with al-Qaida, but claims he was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. Rather, he has claimed that he was preparing for a separate attack. Ramzi Binalshibh, an al-Qaida leader now in U.S. custody and an alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, has told investigators that Moussaoui met with him prior to September 11, but Binalshibh chose not to use him. Binalshibh felt that Moussaoui had previously drawn too much attention to himself through a series of flight lessons and inquiries about crop dusting. No evidence directly linking Moussaoui to the 9/11 attacks has been released.

The case was widely seen as a barometer of the ability and willingness of the United States to give a fair hearing to terrorism suspects. Moussaoui has angered many people, including Judge Brinkema, with repeated outbursts and inflammatory statements. Moussaoui has admitted that he is using the trial as a soapbox to advertise Islamic fundamentalism and his views on America.

The trial has highlighted a tension in America between the judiciary and national security. Moussaoui has made requests for access to confidential documents and the right to call captive al-Qaida members as witnesses, notably Binalshibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. Both requests are claimed by prosecutors to be potential threats to national security. The motion to access confidential documents was denied by Judge Brinkema and a decision on the use of al-Qaida prisoners as witnesses is still pending.

Brinkema put the death penalty "off limits" on October 2, 2003, in reply to government defiance of her order to provide access to Moussaoui's witnesses. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Brinkema ruling, holding that the U.S. government could use summaries of interviews/interrogatations of these witnesses. On March 21, 2005, the United States Supreme Court denied, without comment, Moussaoui's pre-trial appeal of the Fourth Circuit's decision, returning the case to Judge Brinkema.

On Friday April 22, 2005 in one of the court sessions at the end of the current trial phase, Moussaoui surprised the whole audience by pleading guilty to all of the charges against him, while at the same time denying having any intention of a massacre like 9/11. He said that it was not his conspiracy and that he intended to free blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. According to him, his master plan was to hijack a Boeing 747-400, since the plane is one of a few that could reach Afganistan from the U.S. without any intermediate stops.

Death penalty

Having entered a guilty plea, Moussaoui may be given the death penalty. Germany says it will not release evidence against Moussaoui unless the U.S. promises not to seek death as punishment. April 27, 2005, French Justice Minister Dominique Perben reminded of the engagement taken by the United States of America not to require the death penalty against Moussaoui: "When France gave elements of informations about Mister Moussaoui to the American justice, I obtained a written engagement of the United States not to use these elements to require or execute the death penalty". France is opposed to the death penalty on principle.

See also



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