When it comes to al Qaeda-trained soldier Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person the United States has convicted for the September 11th terrorist attacks, a reality check is tricky.
From his offbeat and offensive behavior in court to his lengthy rants in handwritten motions he filed while representing himself for a time, Moussaoui has displayed a consistent volatility. He was, to quote remarks at sentencing by his trial judge, Leonie Brinkema, “an absolutely impossible defendant.”
Then there was his bizarre trial testimony, when Moussaoui asserted al Qaeda had tapped him to fly a fifth plane on 9/11 into the White House. One of his defense attorneys, Edward MacMahon, told jurors that testimony was “a tall tale, a whopper.”
Now comes word that Moussaoui, who is serving life without the possibility of parole in the nation’s super-maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado, is dangling information to help authorities complete their understanding of 9/11 financing. For starters, he says, a Saudi prince paid for his training to crash an airplane into a building.
“The guy just wants out of his cell. I can’t blame him for that,” says someone familiar with conditions of confinement in Florence, where inmates can be relegated to their isolated cells 23 hours a day. “The super-max makes them lose their mind.”
After eight years locked up there, is Moussaoui cracking up? Is he hoping to trade information for a less restrictive environment or even a reduced sentence? Is coming forward a disinformation ploy? Is he telling the truth? What are the unanswered questions regarding 9/11 financing?
In recent months, Moussaoui has written a pile of court filings to six separate federal jurisdictions, teasing new information. Some pleadings stem from a civil trial completed in September in the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn, about Hamas financing via the Jordan-based Arab Bank. Other pleadings relate to ongoing civil litigation brought by 9/11 families and survivors against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan.
In the latter case, which seeks to punish alleged Saudi financiers of Islamic terror groups, plaintiffs’ attorneys are taking Moussaoui seriously. In October, they spent two days inside the Colorado prison taking his deposition. The FBI is currently reviewing the transcripts.
To understand the potential value, if any, of Moussaoui’s offers 13 years after he was indicted in December 2001, it is useful to review what we already know. Disparaging adjectives aside, Moussaoui was deemed mentally competent to stand trial and to represent himself. But one defense psychologist later opined Moussaoui was a delusional, paranoid schizophrenic.
The public record of Moussaoui’s trial, completed in 2006 in the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria, with his conviction upheld in 2010, left one major question unanswered: where did he get his money? Moussaoui had at least $49,000 cash on his person during his stay in the United States, from late February 2001 to mid-August 2001, when his jailing began in Minnesota.
Based on evidence presented by FBI agents and federal prosecutors, Moussaoui obtained $10,000 from the al Qaeda operative known as "Khallad" in Southeast Asia in late 2000. That’s according to a written summary of overseas interrogations of Khallad, the alias for high value Guantanamo detainee Walid bin Attash. In a deal brokered by Judge Brinkema, the summary substituted for his video deposition or live testimony as a defense witness.
The Khallad funds were probably part of the $35,000 Moussaoui declared to U.S. Customs upon landing at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. After settling in Oklahoma, Moussaoui deposited most of the cash in a bank. One unanswered 9/11 question is: from where did the other $25,000 come? The truth is the U.S. government still does not know. Nor has the government ever fully accounted for the sources of funding of the estimated $400,000 to $500,000 spent on the 9/11 plot.
Khallad had put Moussaoui on a flight to Malaysia, where Moussaoui was supposed to attend flight school for what might have been a post-9/11 “second wave” attack led by European or Southeast Asian operatives, instead of Middle Eastern ones, according to a written substitution for testimony from alleged 9/11 attack ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But Moussaoui failed to take flight lessons in Malaysia.
Instead, from Malaysia in October 2000, Moussaoui emailed the Airman Flight School in the Oklahoma City suburb of Norman. The school had been on al Qaeda’s radar since 1993, when Egyptian-American operative Ihab Ali Nawawi, from Florida, obtained his pilot license there. Nawawi went on to become Osama bin Laden’s pilot when al Qaeda was based in Khartoum, Sudan, in the early-to-mid-1990s. In July 2000, lead 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi visited Airman before enrolling in a Florida flight school.
Moussaoui paid $5,000 to Airman for flight training. He rented a room for $350 a month. He bought a used Ford Tempo for $1,000. He joined a gym. But the pilot training didn’t go so well. Moussaoui’s flight instructor would describe him as a below average pilot who couldn’t make smooth turns, keep a plane level, or stay on course. Eventually, after giving him 50 hours in the cockpit, the school grounded Moussaoui.
Yet, at the end of May 2001, Moussaoui emailed the Pan Am International Flight Academy in the Minneapolis suburb of Eagan about training on a 747 simulator. “The level I would like to achieve is to take off and land,” he wrote, “to successfully navigate from A to B, (JFK to Heathrow for example).”
In July 2001, Moussaoui made a $1,500 deposit by credit card for a weeklong course at Pan Am. In early August, Moussaoui obtained more cash from al Qaeda -- $14,000 in Western Union wire transfers from operative Ramzi Binalshibh, who was allegedly coordinating the hijacking plot from Hamburg, Germany, and who also now resides at Guantanamo. (The Binalshibh $14,000 plus the $35,000 cash Moussaoui came with totaled $49,000.)
Upon arriving at Pan Am, Moussaoui paid the $8,300 balance owed in cash with a roll of $100 bills. That aroused suspicion, as did his desire to train on a jumbo jet simulator when he lacked a pilot’s license.
On August 16, 2001, after a pair of instructors tipped off the FBI, Moussaoui was taken into custody, initially, for a visa overstay. He then lied about his reason for attending flight school – for fun, he told agents – and covered up his al Qaeda ties. Federal prosecutors would eventually argue if only had Moussaoui revealed his real mission in the U.S., the government could have unraveled the 9/11 plot.
This past September, after a six-week trial in Brooklyn (Linde vs. Arab Bank), a federal jury found the Jordan-headquartered Arab Bank liable in a civil lawsuit brought by more than 300 victims or relatives of victims of 24 Hamas-led attacks in Israel between 2001 and 2004.
The trial depicted Arab Bank as a conduit for Hamas funds. Evidence pointed to $70 million processed in accounts controlled by Hamas leaders, operatives, and charity fronts, including deposits earmarked for families of suicide bombers. A second trial is scheduled for next May to determine the amount of damages owed.
During jury deliberations, plaintiffs’ attorneys obtained through the Freedom of Information Act a once secret U.S. government document that, they say, adds credence to their case. Essentially, the October 2012 State Department report describes an “ongoing” network of Saudi deposits responsible for funneling “millions of dollars” to Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas.
Days after the Arab Bank verdict, which he says he heard about on Fox News Channel, Moussaoui wrote the clerk of the Brooklyn federal court offering “testimony against the Arab Bank and others for supporting al Qaeda.”
“I want to testify against financial institutions such as the Arab Bank,” Moussaoui wrote, and against a list of Saudi banks and prominent Saudis like Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the U.S., and his sister, Princess Haifa al-Faisal. Moussaoui tarred them “for their support and financing of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda” since the late 1990s.
“I don’t think it has any relevance to our case,” winning Arab Bank plaintiffs’ attorney Gary Osen told me. Simply put, there was no al Qaeda component to the Arab Bank case. Osen was puzzled what Moussaoui could offer after 13 years behind bars. “With someone of that nature, I don’t know how much to take seriously,” he said. “I think Moussaoui was pretty far down the food chain.”
In late October, Moussaoui received a prison visit from attorneys who do take him seriously – the plaintiffs in a 9/11-related class action civil lawsuit that has dragged on for a decade in Manhattan federal court (In re: Terrorists Attacks on September 11, 2001)
The suit is a consolidation of cases supported by more than a thousand 9/11 families aiming to hold accountable the financiers of terrorism.
The key defendant is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose government officials and charities allegedly directed material support for a decade preceding 9/11 to al Qaeda and like-minded groups, according to the lawsuit. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. The kingdom is trying to get the case dismissed.
Back in May, Moussaoui had hand-written, unsolicited, to U.S. District Judge George Daniels, who presides over the complex litigation. “As a defendant in a case brought by the so-called victim family, I want to meet the attorney of victim family (sic),” Moussaoui wrote.
Seeing Moussaoui as the quintessential 9/11 insider, plaintiffs’ attorneys told Judge Daniels meeting Moussaoui would be worthwhile: “Plaintiffs believe that Moussaoui’s sworn testimony is not only relevant but critical to their opposition to the defendant’s renewed motion to dismiss.” It took four months to arrange the prison deposition, which was transcribed by a court reporter. The visit stretched over two days.
Judge Daniels has set a January deadline for the plaintiffs’ to incorporate Moussaoui’s information in their reply to the latest Saudi motion to dismiss. Due to federal restrictions on terrorist inmates, the attorneys are not at liberty to disclose the substance of their Moussaoui meeting until the FBI clears the transcript.
Since the deposition, Moussaoui has written federal courthouses in the Western District in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City), the Northern District in Texas (Dallas) and the Southern District of Florida (Miami), reasserting his claim that Saudi banks and Saudi royals like Prince Turki and Princess Haifa were connected to 9/11.
Moussaoui stated while he was enrolled in his first flight school, in Norman, Oklahoma, Prince Turki met him on the University of Oklahoma campus and “was assisting me personally in my Islamic terrorist activities.”
Moussaoui stated Princess Haifa met him in Dallas and personally gave him $10,000 and told him to contact a Saudi citizen then living in southern California, Omar al- Bayoumi. Bayoumi is notorious among investigators for extensively helping the first two hijackers to arrive in the U.S., Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, get settled in San Diego. From the 9/11 Commission report ten years ago, which Moussaoui once had a copy of, to FBI documents unearthed by Judicial Watch this year, al-Bayoumi’s actions left unanswered questions, but he was never charged with knowingly aiding the 9/11 conspiracy and now lives in Saudi Arabia.
The 9/11 Commission found al-Bayoumi “an unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement with Islamic extremists.” The commission also found no evidence that Princess Haifa funded the terrorism conspiracy “indirectly or directly” or that any foreign government or official provided funding. Prince Turki and the Saudi government have always denied such accusations.
But al-Bayoumi and the royals are subjects of the 9/11 families’ lawsuit for which Moussaoui’s deposition was obtained. The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The plaintiffs’ latest 156-page summary of claims portrays al-Bayoumi as the plot’s missing link, contending he was a well-financed Saudi agent with a no-show civil aviation job as a cover.
In an affidavit, former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ probe of 9/11, describes al-Bayoumi and other Saudis then in the U.S. as a support network for the hijackers, a view endorsed by at least two 9/11 Commission members, former Navy Secretary John Lehman and former Senator Bob Kerrey. Kerry says in an affidavit:
Significant questions remain unanswered concerning the possible involvement of Saudi Government institutions and actors in the financing and sponsorship of al Qaeda, and evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Moussaoui has any answers.
Beyond his unsubstantiated allegations, Moussaoui says he wants to sue President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for obstruction, for failing to heed his new information. He claims rival al Qaeda inmates and prison guards have beaten him up to keep him quiet. And earlier this month, Moussaoui asked to be transferred to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for his own safety and to testify there.
On November 7, Oklahoma Federal Magistrate Shon Erwin construed the Moussaoui filing there as a complaint against the Bureau of Prisons and ruled if it had any merit, it should be filed where Moussaoui lives, in Colorado. Which is what Moussaoui did next, repeating his story against the Saudi royals in filing with Colorado federal court.
To accept Moussaoui’s assertions, one would need to believe the Saudi royal family, which exiled Osama bin Laden, chose to advance his goals. One would also need to believe someone as prominent as Prince Turki, as head of Saudi intelligence, could roam around the U.S. undetected, though U.S. government surveillance would be standard procedure. Even though Moussaoui was not the smoothest al Qaeda operative, it would have been poor tradecraft for him to meet the head of a foreign intelligence service. Is such a meeting even plausible? Imagine the CIA Director meeting a low level operative in a foreign country.
Moussaoui, a Moroccan Arab who grew up in France, told the Minneapolis FBI and immigration agents who interviewed him in August 2001 he had once traveled to Saudi Arabia. If true, the details are not in the public record. Evidence in his trial showed Moussaoui spent time as an adult in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Malaysia, Morocco, and England.
Long before Moussaoui’s outreach in the Arab Bank and 9/11 civil suits, Moussaoui once offered to cooperate. In February 2006, after pleading guilty to a role in al Qaeda’s conspiracy to kill Americans, an agreement was on the table. Prosecutors sought a proffer of what evidence he could offer. But in the end, Moussaoui wasn’t interested in helping. He has since refused all requests to speak to the FBI.
When Moussaoui surprisingly took the stand in his trial, prosecutor Robert Spencer asked him during cross-examination if he had been taught “to lie to help your cause?”
“That’s correct,” Moussaoui replied.
“It’s permissible to lie to further jihad?” Spencer pressed.
“Prophet Mohammed say war is deceit,” Moussaoui explained. “You are allowed to do any technique to deceive your enemy.”
Even without that admission, can anyone trust a terrorist convicted of lying to cover up the worst criminal conspiracy in recent American history? That's the key question.