- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui testified yesterday that he and would-be shoe bomber Richard C. Reid were supposed to hijack a fifth airplane on September 11 and fly it into the White House.

Moussaoui’s testimony on his own behalf stunned the Alexandria courtroom as his account was in stark contrast to his previous statements.

He told the court that he knew the World Trade Center attack was imminent and that he lied to investigators when arrested in August 2001 because he wanted it to happen.

“You lied because you wanted to conceal that you were a member of al Qaeda?” prosecutor Rob Spencer asked.

“That’s correct,” Moussaoui said.

“You lied so the plan could go forward?” Mr. Spencer asked.

“That’s correct,” Moussaoui said.

The exchange could be key to the government’s case that the September 11 attacks might have been averted had Moussaoui been more cooperative after his arrest.

Moussaoui told the court that he knew the attacks were to occur some time after August 2001 and bought a radio so he could hear them unfold.

Specifically, he said he knew the World Trade Center was going to be attacked.

“I had knowledge that the Twin Towers would be hit,” Moussaoui said. “I didn’t know the details of this.”

Nineteen men pulled off the attacks in New York, a Washington suburb and a Pennsylvania field in the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

Asked by his attorney why he signed his guilty plea in April as “the 20th hijacker,” Moussaoui replied, “Because everybody used to refer to me as the 20th hijacker, and it was a bit of fun.”

Moussaoui denied he was to have been a fifth hijacker on United Airlines Flight 93, which four al Qaeda hijackers flew into a Pennsylvania field on September 11 — the so-called missing 20th hijacker. The intended target in that attack remains a mystery.

Moussaoui said he was part of the September 11 operation and ordered to pilot a fifth jetliner into the White House. He said Reid was the only person he knew for sure would have been on that mission, but others were discussed.

On Dec. 22, 2001, Reid was subdued by passengers when he attempted to detonate a bomb in his shoe aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. He pleaded guilty in October 2002 to trying to blow up Flight 63 and was sentenced to life in prison.

But the jury also heard the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, now in U.S. custody, repeatedly state that Moussaoui was to be a part of a second wave of attacks unrelated to September 11. In a 58-page statement read to jurors, Mohammed said he only wanted Middle Easterners for September 11, so that Europeans like Moussaoui stood a better chance of mounting a subsequent attack after security was increased.

Moussaoui testified that at one point he was excluded from September 11 pre-hijacking operations because he had gotten in trouble with his al Qaeda superiors on a 2000 trip to Malaysia. He said it was only after he was called back to Afghanistan and talked with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that he was approved again for the operations.

Prosecutors argue that Moussaoui, a French citizen, thwarted a prime opportunity to track down the September 11 hijackers and possibly unravel the plot when he lied after his arrest.

Had Moussaoui confessed, the FBI could have pursued leads that would have led them to most of the hijackers, government witnesses have testified.

To win the death penalty, prosecutors must first prove that Moussaoui’s actions — specifically, his lies — were directly responsible for at least one death on September 11. If they fail, Moussaoui would get life in prison.

Mr. Spencer tried but failed to counter one of the defense’s opening day arguments. Defense attorney Edward MacMahon had told the jury that Moussaoui wanted martyrdom and that the only way he could achieve that would be if the jury gave him the death penalty.

Three times, Mr. Spencer asked Moussaoui a version of this question: “If you get the death penalty, you are not a martyr?”

“It’s more complex,” Moussaoui said. “It depends.”

“Depends on what?” Mr. Spencer asked.

“If you have fought to the best of your ability,” Moussaoui said.

• Associated Press reporters Michael J. Sniffen and Amy Westfeldt contributed to this report.

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