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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

A Case of Where, Not What

Prosecutors say Zacarias Moussaoui's travels-- from an Afghan terrorist training camp to an Oklahoma flight school-- are key to his indictment in the Sept. 11 attacks.

March 30, 2002|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When FBI and immigration agents arrested Zacarias Moussaoui at his motel in suburban Minneapolis on Aug. 16, they suspected he might be a potential airline hijacker.

He wanted to fly "the Big Bird," he'd said. He was in a hurry to learn. And despite more than 50 hours at the controls, he couldn't even solo a single-engine Cessna.

But the only direct evidence of his breaking the law were technical violations of his visa.

More than seven months later, U.S. prosecutors say they have sufficient evidence to warrant that the French-born Moussaoui should die. He is, they say, a conspirator in Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorism network and in the Sept. 11 attacks that killed thousands in New York, Pennsylvania and Arlington, Va.

But while the investigation into Moussaoui has revealed a global odyssey that intersected a world of terrorism, prosecutors have yet to produce direct evidence that he ever committed a terrorist act. Nor have they presented direct proof that Moussaoui was involved in planning the Sept. 11 hijackings or that he was the intended 20th hijacker before his arrest, as authorities have privately suggested.

In fact, Moussaoui appears to be little more than a bit player in his own indictment. The conspiracy charges that were handed down Dec. 11 by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., mostly outline the government's case against Bin Laden's Al Qaeda forces and the renegade Saudi terrorist leader himself.

Yet Moussaoui's movements--from his attendance at Al Qaeda's Khalden training camp in Afghanistan in 1998 to his pilot training last year in Norman, Okla.--form a virtual map of key arteries in Al Qaeda's global network.

Interviews with scores of law enforcement agents on three continents, as well as religious leaders and friends, relatives and colleagues of Moussaoui's, show that his trail alone testifies to Al Qaeda's far reach, its roots, recruitment and regional leadership.

Several of Moussaoui's key contacts--from London to Kuala Lumpur--have emerged since his arrest as major Al Qaeda players. The group's name is Arabic for "the Base."

An ethnic Moroccan, Moussaoui trained at a terrorist camp at the same time as an Algerian who would later plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and a Briton who would try to set off a shoe bomb on a Miami-bound flight from Paris, government officials say.

In London, Moussaoui was steeped in radical Islam by firebrand imams. And in Malaysia, he had been the guest of Bin Laden's operations chief for Southeast Asia, an Indonesian cleric who also was host to two Sept. 11 hijackers and oversaw a massive bombing plot in Singapore, according to authorities in the region.

Moussaoui's three-member defense team, led by federal public defender Frank W. Dunham Jr., declined to comment on the case. They have asserted in court that Moussaoui is innocent and that the case against him is circumstantial at best. Moussaoui announced in court that "in the name of Allah," he was offering no plea.

On balance, the case against Moussaoui so far is built only in small part on what he did, and far more on where, when and with whom he did it.

A Time of the 'Big Noise' in London

Zacarias Moussaoui never spoke seriously of God, of Islam or the holy war Muslims call jihad, when he left France in 1993 at the age of 25, his mother, Aicha, said. In September of that year, he enrolled in the graduate program at London's South Bank University, majoring in international business.

But just as he arrived, South Bank, an urban campus of sooted windows and aged brick a mile south of the London Bridge, was on the brink of becoming a hotbed of Islamic extremism--an era Muslim leaders in London called "the Big Noise."

From 1993 to 1995, Islamic groups were forming chapters at more than 50 university campuses throughout the United Kingdom. And South Bank, with a large percentage of foreigners among its 17,000 students, was an ideal incubator for a new generation of self-aware young Muslims like Moussaoui.

Even today, after Britain has banned such groups from its campuses, light poles and trash bins surrounding South Bank are plastered with leaflets protesting the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and promoting such events as a fundamentalist Islamic gathering at Trafalgar Square.

One gathering in London's Wembley arena by the now-banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, in August 1994--midway through Moussaoui's studies--drew an estimated 8,000 fist-shaking, feet-stamping Muslims. They rallied behind the twin causes of creating a global Islamic state and destroying Israel. Ideas, witnesses say, Moussaoui would espouse at mosques from London to Oklahoma years later.

After he graduated from South Bank in June 1995, Moussaoui started attending Imam Abdul Haqq Baker's services at South London's Brixton Mosque, an unadorned set of weather-worn brick row houses across from the Brixton Police Station.

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