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In Court, Two 20th Hijackers Stand Up

Zacarias Moussaoui is on trial for his role in 9/11, but officials now agree it's likely another detainee was to play a part in the attacks.

April 03, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — On the 12th day of the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, at about 9:45 in the morning, one of the most puzzling riddles of the Sept. 11 conspiracy seemed at last to be laid to rest.

It was then that a top Al Qaeda figure being held in a secret location overseas testified that the 20th hijacker, the man who never made it to the airplanes, was a young Saudi man named Mohammad al-Qahtani, who as it turns out was about as hapless a terrorist as Moussaoui.

He testified that Qahtani was to be the "last one" to join a 19-man sleeper cell already in the U.S., and that he was designated to "complete the group" of five terrorists for each of the four planes.

Mystery solved?

So it would seem, except for a few niggling doubts that have surfaced during the four-week trial. A day earlier, statements made by Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed were read to the jury: There was no 20th hijacker because Al Qaeda could get only 19 into the U.S.

A year ago, Moussaoui claimed he was the mystery man when he signed his guilty plea as the "20th hijacker." On the witness stand in his ongoing sentencing trial, Moussaoui confessed he signed it that way just as "a bit of fun, that's all."

These proceedings have been filled with plot twists. And yet government and defense lawyers now agree that if a 20th hijacker had been intended to join the others, it most likely was Qahtani.

Qahtani said so himself.

In statements made to interrogators at the prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and read aloud to a hushed courtroom, he spun a tale of how Osama bin Laden hand-selected him for "a special mission in America" -- that he was to serve as a "muscle" hijacker on one of the Sept. 11 planes.

But Qahtani, like Moussaoui, had U.S. visa problems and only got as far as the customs checkpoint at the Orlando, Fla., airport, where he was turned back. He went back to the United Arab Emirates about the same time that Moussaoui was being arrested in Minnesota, a few weeks before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The jurors are in the midst of their deliberations, and the question of a 20th hijacker is one they are bound to confront. The nine men and three women listened intently to Qahtani's testimony. They also were presented fresh details about how Mohamed Atta, the man who would turn out to be the lead Sept. 11 hijacker, was left cooling his heels at the Orlando airport, forced to wait for Qahtani.

"Juries frequently confront contradictory information, especially in criminal trials," said Carl Tobias, a law school professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "Juries then must sort through all of the evidence, sift and weigh it, resolve the contradictions as best they can, and reach a determination."

Five hijackers were in each of the three planes that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth plane was commandeered by four hijackers. It never made it to its destination -- which Mohammed identified as the U.S. Capitol, thus providing a credible answer to another unresolved question: whether the Capitol or the White House was the intended target.

Instead, after a struggle with passengers, the plane with just four hijackers spun out of control and smashed into a Pennsylvania field. Had that 20th hijacker been on that plane, would it have reached the Capitol?

These questions are slowly coming into focus during Moussaoui's trial, where he faces death or life in prison with no parole.

To demonstrate that Moussaoui was not responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, much of the testimony defense lawyers sought was from detainees held in foreign locations. Government officials, saying that they wished to avoid a potential security nightmare, only permitted them to testify through lengthy written statements read to the jury.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is believed to be the Al Qaeda leader who put together the Sept. 11 plot. His testimony was read first, on March 27.

He said Qahtani "was sent alone to round out the number of hijackers for the 9/11 attacks." But after he was stopped at the Orlando airport, Al Qaeda leaders realized Qahtani was not a good choice because, according to Mohammed, "he possessed no operational or basic knowledge that would qualify him for such an operation."

He said Qahtani had problems communicating in code. He said he did not understand requirements for a U.S. visa. He spoke no English. So even had Qahtani made it into the U.S., it was likely he would have been cut from the plot.

Qahtani is an "extremely simple man," Mohammed testified. He was "too much of an unsophisticated 'bedouin' to function with ease in a modern, Western society."

So Al Qaeda cut its losses. "The 9/11 operation was left with only 19 operatives," Mohammed said.

On March 28, testimony was read from Mustafa al-Hawsawi, the alleged Sept. 11 paymaster. He insisted that Qahtani, warts and all, was definitely No. 20.

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