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Moussaoui Pleads Guilty to Terror Plot

The conspirator denies being involved in the 9/11 attacks, saying Bin Laden chose him for a separate airplane strike on the White House.

April 23, 2005|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A calm, deliberate Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring with Al Qaeda operatives who were involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist plot. But he defiantly vowed to "fight every inch" of the way against being put to death because, he said, he actually was recruited for a separate assault: flying a large plane into the White House.

Nevertheless, by signing a five-page, 23-paragraph statement of facts acknowledging his involvement, Moussaoui made himself subject to the death penalty when the punishment phase of his case opens later this year.

In the statement of facts, the 46-year-old French Moroccan said he came to the United States after being "personally selected" by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to attack the White House. He acknowledged that he used several aliases, including Abu Khaled al Sahrawi. And he said that Bin Laden, in encouraging him to kill Americans, told him, "Sahrawi, remember your dream."

Moussaoui's admissions seemed to offer new details about Al Qaeda and its plans to attack the United States. He supported the theory, widely held by anti-terrorism experts, that Bin Laden personally approved members of the teams sent to attack the United States. And he indicated that one of Al Qaeda's goals had been to free the so-called blind sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, who is imprisoned in the U.S.

But the statement of facts also left some key questions unanswered, including whether the Al Qaeda leader had wanted to hit the White House in the same wave of attacks that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 or in a later one.

Both Moussaoui's guilty plea and his statements about details of his case are shadowed by questions about his mental state. In the past, he has frequently made contradictory, sometimes incoherent statements, ranted against the judge and his own attorneys, and taken positions that appeared to be against his own interests.

Some analysts have suggested that Moussaoui, instead of being a trained Al Qaeda operative, may simply be a zealot -- possibly unbalanced -- who portrayed himself as playing a more important role in terrorist plots than he actually had. He was being held in a Minnesota jail when the attacks occurred; he had been arrested on immigration charges after his efforts to obtain flight training had aroused suspicions.

The questions may be resolved when the case enters the penalty phase, in which the government could be forced to reveal more of its evidence.

After Friday's hearing, U.S. Atty. Paul J. McNulty, whose office is prosecuting Moussaoui, said it was Moussaoui's "own desire to fly a plane into the White House." But he said the government had never said where it believed the airliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania farm field, United Flight 93, was headed.

McNulty also said the government had no legal position on whether Moussaoui was the so-called 20th hijacker who was supposed to be inside the cockpit of that plane.

In the federal court hearing, held not far from the site where one of the hijacked planes slammed into the Pentagon, Moussaoui took the highly unusual step of pleading guilty to a capital case knowing it could send him to a federal execution chamber.

Yet U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that Moussaoui was pleading guilty "knowingly and voluntarily" and that, though acting against the advice of his court-appointed lawyers, he completely understood the consequences.

"Mr. Moussaoui is an extremely intelligent man," she said at one point during the hourlong hearing in a seventh-floor courtroom packed with lawyers, reporters and U.S. marshals.

Looking down at the bearded, balding Moussaoui, she added, "He has actually a better understanding of the legal system than some lawyers I've seen in court."

Moussaoui pleaded guilty to all six counts in the federal indictment filed against him: that he conspired to commit acts of terrorism, aircraft piracy and aircraft destruction; to use weapons of mass destruction; to murder U.S. employees and to destroy property. It is the first four charges that carry the death penalty.

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, speaking at the Department of Justice in Washington, said his team of government lawyers looked forward to the penalty phase, where they were expected to hold Moussaoui accountable with his life for the deaths of the nearly 3,000 people killed Sept. 11, 2001. Doing that would mark the first time in the U.S. that anyone has been held responsible for the attack.

"The fact that Moussaoui participated in this terrorist plot is no longer in doubt," Gonzales said. "In a chilling admission of guilt, Moussaoui confessed to his participation."

Inside the courtroom, one of his lawyers, Alan H. Yamamoto, reiterated to the judge that his legal team had strongly counseled him against pleading guilty to a capital indictment. Yamamoto said he and Moussaoui debated "around in circles" what the consequences might be, and that his client nevertheless understood what he was doing.

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