This past week, Osama bin Laden released yet another audiotape--his third in the past year. As before, bin Laden focuses on events in the United States, namely, the sentencing of al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui, the only terrorist to be convicted in a U.S. court for involvement in the September 11 attacks. The sentencing phase of Moussaoui's trial created a media circus. With violent rhetoric and bizarre behavior, Moussaoui tried to steal the show by focusing the world's attention on his desire to kill Americans.
Not to be outdone, bin Laden seeks to refocus attention on his own role in directing the September 11 attacks. "I am the one in charge of the 19 brothers," bin Laden says on the tape, "and I never assigned brother Zacarias to be with them in that mission." Furthermore, Moussaoui had "no connection whatsoever" to the 9/11 attacks. What about Moussaoui's confession, which the French citizen and Moroccan native attempted to retract only after his sentencing? It was "a false confession," the "result of the pressure put upon him for the past four and a half years," bin Laden claims.
Perhaps the terror master has been reading the New York Times. The day after a jury spared Moussaoui the death sentence, giving him life in a Colorado super-max prison, the Times praised the decision, saying it seemed to be "the best possible outcome." Why? "For all his bombast," the Times argued, "Mr. Moussaoui had no direct role in the 9/11 attacks. And it is good to know that he will not achieve a fanatic's martyrdom."
To be fair, the Times is not alone in this sentiment. Moussaoui's precise role in the September 11 attacks has been the subject of debate ever since he was indicted. Some still believe that Moussaoui was not really preparing to take part in that martyrdom operation at the time of his arrest, just a month before the attacks. But given his conviction, one would think the matter was moot.
Not so. According to the Washington Post, doubts about Moussaoui's planned role in September 11 may even have saved his life. One juror told the Post that he voted against a death sentence because he thought Moussaoui's "role in 9/11 was actually minor." The jury foreman further explained that "only one juror stood between Moussaoui and death after an 11 to 1 vote." That is, despite having already convicted Moussaoui of involvement in the 9/11 conspiracy, this juror apparently reversed course and decided he wasn't a big enough fish to fry.
There are good reasons to believe this lone juror and the Times got it wrong. A host of unchallenged facts tie Moussaoui to the man who acted as a handler for the 9/11 hijackers, Ramzi Binalshibh, in the months leading up to the attack. And while some have tried to portray Moussaoui as merely an al Qaeda wannabe with a penchant for self-aggrandizement, his ties to Ramzi Binalshibh alone should be enough to convince anyone of his participation in the 9/11 plot.
Binalshibh was the intermediary between the hijackers, including their ringleader Mohammed Atta, and al Qaeda's senior leadership, including Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. The money used by the hijackers in their pre-attack preparations flowed through Binalshibh. He also passed information crucial to the plot's execution, including the date chosen for the attack, from the hijackers to their masters and vice versa. Binalshibh was so important to the plot that Atta left the United States in July 2001 to meet with him for 10 days in Spain.
At the same time Binalshibh was managing the final stages of preparations for September 11, he was also keeping tabs on Moussaoui. The federal indictment of Moussaoui makes this clear. Between August 1 and August 3, 2001, Binalshibh wired $14,000 to Moussaoui from two train stations in Germany. On August 10, Moussaoui paid almost half this amount in cash to Pan Am International Flight Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From August 13 to 15, he attended training courses on a Boeing 747 flight simulator at the academy.
On August 16, Moussaoui was arrested after employees at the academy, who were suspicious of his strange behavior, alerted the FBI. According to the indictment, all of the following were found in his possession: two knives, "fighting gloves and shin guards," "flight manuals for the Boeing 747 Model 400," "a flight simulator computer program," "a piece of paper referring to a handheld Global Positioning System receiver and a camcorder," "software that could be used to review pilot procedures for the Boeing 747 Model 400," "a computer disk containing information related to the aerial application of pesticides," and "a hand-held aviation radio."
Authorities found something else in Moussaoui's possession: "a notebook listing German Telephone #1, German Telephone #2, and the name 'Ahad Sabet.'" Sabet, we now know, was one of the aliases used by Ramzi Binalshibh.
At least one FBI agent, Harry Samit, was convinced Moussaoui was preparing for a hijacking at the time of his arrest. Samit is the agent who arrested and initially questioned Moussaoui. On August 17 he warned his superiors at the Bureau, via email, about the Moroccan's intentions. Samit had asked Moussaoui why he was willing to shell out so much cash to learn to fly. Moussaoui's "weak" excuse was that "he just wants to learn how to do it." Samit warned, "That's pretty ominous and obviously suggests some sort of hijacking plan."
Unfortunately, Samit's superiors didn't think it was so obvious. His warnings were largely ignored until after it was too late. Some, including the Times and the lone juror interviewed by the Post, apparently still don't think it is obvious.
Part of the confusion surrounding Moussaoui's role in 9/11 was sown by the would-be terrorist himself. At first, he denied any involvement in 9/11, arguing that he was to be a part of a second wave of attacks. Later, he changed his story, claiming he really did intend to take part in 9/11. He even claimed that Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber whom Moussaoui had met at London's now infamous Finsbury mosque, was supposed to assist him in flying a hijacked airliner into the White House. Since Moussaoui disclosed his latter story during the course of his trial, when the world was watching, some have claimed he only wanted the attention and adulation of his fellow Islamists.
But a closer look at what the two chief architects of the 9/11 attacks had to say about Moussaoui lays the issue to rest. Binalshibh was captured after a prolonged gunfight in Pakistan in 2002 and has been in U.S. custody ever since. Although he has been held in a secret location, we know what Binalshibh had to say about Moussaoui's role in 9/11 thanks to the 9/11 Commission report.
Initially, Binalshibh intended to take part in the operation as one of the hijackers, but he was denied an entry visa to the United States. According to Binalshibh, "Moussaoui was to take his place as another pilot in the 9/11 operation." The 9/11 Commission further explained:
Recounting a post-9/11 discussion with KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] in Kandahar, Binalshibh claims KSM mentioned Moussaoui as being part of the 9/11 operation. Although KSM never referred to Moussaoui by name, Binalshibh understood he was speaking of the operative to whom Binalshibh had wired money. Binalshibh says KSM did not approve of Moussaoui but believes KSM did not remove him from the operation only because Moussaoui had been selected and assigned by Bin Ladin himself.
Bin Laden claims in his most recent tape that had Moussaoui really known anything about the 9/11 operation at the time of his arrest, al Qaeda would have called off the attack. "Brother Moussaoui was arrested two weeks before the events," bin Laden says, "and if he had known something--even very little--about the 9/11 group, we would have informed the leader of the operation, Mohammed Atta, and the others . . . to leave America before being discovered."
But Binalshibh explained that the reality of the situation was precisely the opposite. Bin Laden and KSM didn't know Moussaoui had been arrested, hence the attack went ahead. According to the 9/11 Commission report:
KSM did not hear about Moussaoui's arrest until after September 11. According to Binalshibh, had Bin Ladin and KSM learned prior to 9/11 that Moussaoui had been detained, they might have canceled the operation. When Binalshibh discussed Moussaoui's arrest with KSM after September 11, KSM congratulated himself on not having Moussaoui contact the other operatives, which would have compromised the operation. Moussaoui had been in contact with Binalshibh, of course, but this was not discovered until after 9/11.
The 9/11 Commission report tells us that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's story differed substantially from Binalshibh's. KSM claimed that Moussaoui was really going to be part of a "second wave" of attacks. But the commissioners had good reasons not to buy his version of events:
KSM denies ever considering Moussaoui for the planes operation. Instead he claims that Moussaoui was slated to participate in a "second wave" of attacks. KSM also states that Moussaoui had no contact with Atta, and we are unaware of evidence contradicting this assertion.
Yet KSM has also stated that by the summer of 2001, he was too busy with the planes operation to continue planning for any second-wave attacks. Moreover, he admits that only three potential pilots were ever recruited for the alleged second wave, Moussaoui plus two others who, by midsummer of 2001, had backed out of the plot.
We therefore believe that the effort to push Moussaoui forward in August 2001 lends credence to the suspicion that he was being primed as a possible pilot in the immediate planes operation.
In short, there is a lot less mystery about what Moussaoui was up to than the media have allowed readers to believe. The jury knew what it was doing when it convicted him of being a 9/11 conspirator. The real mystery is why anyone at this late date is willing to take Osama bin Laden at his word.
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