A federal jury in Alexandria, Va., will hear closing arguments March 29 in the sentencing phase of the trial of convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, who shocked the court with his last-minute testimony that he and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid
were supposed to crash an airplane into the White House as part of the Sept. 11 attacks. The French-born Moussaoui did indeed receive some of the same training as the pilots who later flew the Sept. 11 planes, he had connections to the same overseas jihadist elements as the New York and Washington attackers, and he received funding and orders from the same sources. It is highly unlikely, however, that he was part of the actual Sept. 11 attack, though he could have been involved in a plot to stage a follow-on attack. Moussaoui's claim regarding the Sept. 11 attack quite likely is false, mainly because the timing is all wrong. He entered the United States in February 2001, nearly a year after the real Sept. 11 pilots arrived in late spring/early summer 2000. The original plan, however, called for the attack to occur in May, which would have put Moussaoui on U.S. soil too late to establish a cover and train as a pilot. Moussaoui, who already had washed out of a flight school in Norman, Okla., was taking flying lessons at the Pan Am International Flying Academy in Eagan, Minn., when his erratic behavior attracted attention and led to his arrest on immigration charges in August 2001. Moussaoui's claim that Reid was to be part of his attack team also rings false because all 15 of the "muscle hijackers," those who would control the passengers while the others flew the airplanes, were in the United States by early July 2001. At the time, Reid was still in Europe. Several other militants in U.S. custody have denied that Moussaoui ever was part of the Sept. 11 operation. This group comprises Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who arranged travel finances for al Qaeda; Mohammed al-Qahtani, who allegedly was to be the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attack; South Asian militant leader Hambali; and Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. These people, of course, all had good reason to lie to U.S. investigators — especially if they harbored hopes that other cells still could attempt follow-on attacks. It is possible, therefore, that Moussaoui and Reid were supposed to be part of a follow-on attack, perhaps part of the "planes operation."
In that case there would be three other militants in the cell who are unaccounted for. Given al Qaeda's penchant for making multiple strikes, several planes would have been involved in that strike as well. So, where are the other operatives from those flights? Most likely they, like Moussaoui and Reid, are European citizens who, because of their EU citizenship, could have entered the United States without visas — thus slipping past heightened security following the initial Sept. 11 attack. Whatever assignment the al Qaeda leadership had given him, Moussaoui, like Reid, certainly demonstrated a willingness to be part of a martyrdom operation. His bizarre rants and revelations about Sept. 11 — during the sentencing phase of his trial, no less — probably are an effort to hide the fact that follow-on attacks indeed were planned, and to protect operatives who still could be active. At the same time, he also would want to ensure that the jury sentences him to death rather than to life in prison — thereby securing the martyrdom that his capture had denied him.