GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — When a visibly aged Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices were reunited in a sterile military courtroom here Thursday, they laughed and chatted like old school chums and apparently rekindled their common cause: to defy their American enemies or die trying.
Strident and unremorseful over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks they allegedly plotted, four of the men declared their eagerness to be executed.
Asked by the tribunal's chief judge, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, if he recognized that he could be put to death if convicted, Mohammed said: "This is what I wish. I'm looking to be a martyr for a long time."
Sporting a bushy gray beard and elastic-banded spectacles and looking a generation older than his 43 years, the man known to his interrogators and captors as KSM occasionally stood to make random observations to the crowded courtroom or to adjust his white tunic and head covering. At times he looked indifferent to the life-or-death issues around him.
Alleged Al Qaeda training camp steward Walid bin Attash, a boyish-looking 30-year-old, had a question for Kohlmann. "Will we be buried at Guantanamo or will our bodies be returned to our countries?" he asked dispassionately.
Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to have coordinated a Hamburg, Germany, sleeper cell while three of the four Sept. 11 pilots waited for their orders to hijack U.S. airliners, reminded the court that he had tried to be part of the suicide mission but was denied a U.S. visa.
"I have been seeking martyrdom for five years!" Binalshibh said when warned that he could face death if convicted. "If this martyrdom happens today, I will welcome it. God is great! God is great! God is great!"
Binalshibh was the only defendant wearing shackles on his bulging ankles, a restraint Guantanamo authorities declined to explain. With the courtroom ringed by camouflage-clad guards and the entire structure surrounded by concentric rings of razor-wire-topped fences, the likelihood of escape appeared remote.
Ali Abdul Aziz Ali told Kohlmann he shared the views of the three before him who praised martyrdom and replied nonchalantly to Kohlmann's question as to whether he knew the ultimate penalty could be levied against him: "Naturally. I know."
Ali, who insisted to the court that his real name was Ammar al Baluchi, spoke in fluent English, mocking the judge's earnest assurances of his rights to legal assistance.
A nephew of Mohammed and a college-trained computer engineer, Ali said it was late for his U.S. jailers to be offering him a lawyer.
"Everything that has happened here is unfair and unjust. Since the first time I was arrested, I might have appreciated that," he said of the offer of free legal representation.
"The government is talking about lawyers free of charge. The government also tortured me free of charge all these years," he said.
Kohlmann told him he considered it unwise for the defendants to insist on representing themselves, to which Ali retorted, "For me, this proceeding in its entirety is unwise."
Though the defendants were defiant of the military authority around them, none mentioned Al Qaeda or its leader, Osama bin Laden. Neither did they express remorse for the nearly 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mohammed's defiance had been expected, as he confessed to masterminding the attacks during a March 2007 hearing here after being transferred six months earlier from secret CIA custody abroad. He also claims to have wielded the saber that beheaded kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan shortly after the 2001 attacks.
Kohlmann said he would issue a schedule for motions and a trial date after further reflection, although he seemed inclined to get the case moving as soon as possible. Prosecutors have suggested mid-September for the start of trial.
The judge also deferred ruling on whether Binalshibh and Saudi suspect Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi should be allowed to reject their military lawyers and represent themselves.
In Thursday's proceeding, which stretched over 10 hours to include breaks for lunch and prayers, it was apparent that Mohammed was directing the effort by the defendants to present a united front in refusing to work with military defense lawyers.
He and Binalshibh interjected comments and observations when other defendants were being questioned. The Army lawyer for Hawsawi said his client had come into the courtroom willing to work with his defense team until Mohammed taunted him.
"What, are you in the American army now?" the lawyer, Maj. Jon Jackson, quoted Mohammed as saying.
When asked by the judge if he accepted Jackson and the rest of the team to represent him, Hawsawi echoed his codefendants: "I want to defend myself, by myself."