Alleged 9/11 Mastermind Seeks Death Penalty, Martyrdom
Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 4 Others Arraigned in Military Courtroom at Guantanamo
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008; 1:39 PM
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba
, June 5 -- Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, calmly told a U.S. military court Thursday that he wishes for a death sentence so that he can become "a martyr."
Sitting at the front of a line of white-clad detainees who allegedly carried out the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history, Mohammed stroked his long, bushy, gray beard and spoke in confident English of his contempt for the U.S. Constitution and the military commissions designed to try him.
Calling the process an "inquisition," Mohammed told Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, the presiding judge, that he wants to represent himself at trial and looks forward to the death penalty.
"Yes, this is what I wish," Mohammed said. "I have [been] looking to be a martyr from long time. I will, God willing, have this, by you. I understand very well."
Mohammed and four other alleged top al-Qaeda operatives emerged Thursday morning from the shadows of their lengthy U.S. detention, appearing publicly for the first time since their captures to face arraignment in one of the most anticipated trials in U.S. history.
The men are alleged to be at the heart of the terror conspiracy that shook America on Sept. 11, 2001 -- unprecedented attacks that fixed al-Qaeda as the nation's chief worldwide enemy. They are charged with orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Americans on airplanes, in New York skyscrapers and at the Pentagon.
A spokeswoman for the trials said the five defendants entered the courtroom willingly. In other cases, some defendants have resisted and have been forcibly removed from their cells to attend the hearings.
Mohammed quickly took center stage at Thursday's hearing, railing against President Bush and his "crusades" in Iraq
while orchestrating a strategy that could prove a major disruption to the military commission trials.
After conferring at length with his alleged co-conspirators, who were arrayed along a row of defense tables on the left side of the courtroom, Mohammed disavowed the system created to try him. He refused representation from any American citizen, saying he has a religious objection to anything outside Islamic religious law.
Walid Bin Attash, a 30-year-old Yemeni who is accused as part of the conspiracy, quickly followed suit, answering questions from the judge and closely conferring with Mohammed.
Mohammed often sat back in his chair and removed his black-rimmed glasses to flip through documents, contemplative and smiling at the other detainees. Mohammed, who said he was 43, looked much older and slimmer than the disheveled, mustachioed captive in the photo that was widely distributed after his arrest in 2003.
He chanted Koranic phrases in Arabic before carefully translating them into English, explaining to the court that he believes God will take care of him. At one point, he said: "Say nothing shall befall us save for what Allah has ordained for us."
Mohammed indicated that he had been told not to say anything about the countries where he had been detained by the CIA prior to his transfer to Guantanamo or the details of his "torturing." He decried the system at Guantanamo. When Kohlmann at times interrupted him, Mohammed allowed him to speak, several times saying "Go ahead."
All five defendants appeared animated and engaged, at times answering questions in English, although some requested interpreters. Ramzi Binalshibh, wearing a black skull cap and a dark, full beard, smiled and several times conveyed messages from Mohammed to the back rows, where Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi sat. Ali was the only defendant not to wear something on his head, and the thin, diminutive Hawsawi sat quietly in the back row on a pillow, wearing traditional garb.
The cases against these detainees are largely for the purposes of the United States government obtaining death sentences, because even acquittal likely would mean that the detainees remain in U.S. custody indefinitely. The U.S. government has determined each of the men to be "enemy combatants" and serious threats to the U.S. and its allies.
Thursday's arraignment is just the first step in what is certain to be a lengthy and contentious legal process, one that likely will put the untested military commissions system itself on trial. Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the chief legal adviser for the military commissions, argued Wednesday that the trials will be "fair, just and transparent," but defense lawyers have said that the system is a sham and that justice cannot be pursued in the courtrooms of this island military base.
Though other military commissions cases have reached the stage of arraignment and legal motions, only one other case has been fully adjudicated. That occurred last year when Australian David M. Hicks reached a politically brokered plea agreement and was shortly repatriated and later released.
Thursday's arraignment marks the beginning of what could be the most important and most watched terror prosecution for the U.S. government. The charges carry potential death penalties for all five defendants.
The defendants are expected to have the charges explained to them and to be advised of their rights to counsel. Each has a team of military and civilian lawyers available to them, and they could enter pleas to the charges. Several other detainees have chosen previously to boycott these and similar military commission proceedings.
The detainees have been housed in a row of five tiny cream-colored holding cells at the Expeditionary Legal Complex, 40 paces from the courtroom down a wide concrete walk surrounded by black mesh netting and enormous coils of concertina wire. A set of heavy black double doors give way to a cavernous 4,800-square-foot, gray-carpeted courtroom, its white walls bare except for the armed services' round medallions and a large American flag affixed behind the judge's bench.
The detainees have seats at the far left corner of rectangular defense tables, straight-backed, leather-upholstered chairs closest to the courtroom's left wall. Short chains emerge from holes in the floor where detainees can be shackled should a judge order them restrained. The tables, arranged in a row from the front to the back of the courtroom, lead to a plexiglass window behind which observers sit in a soundproof room.
Military officials escorted nearly 60 members of the domestic and international media to Guantanamo for the hearing this week, and as many as 29 will be allowed into the observation room at a time. But the victims of the defendant's alleged handiwork, and their relatives, will be notably absent from the proceedings Thursday; they were given no option to view or attend .
"That was a mistake," Hartmann said. "We'll make sure that doesn't happen again."
Also glaringly absent from the courtroom will be Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's fugitive leader, who is mentioned 18 times in the 23-page conspiracy charge sheets but has evaded global efforts to capture or kill him.
Mohammed has long been considered the architect of the attacks and has remained the government's top target for prosecution among the hundreds of alleged terrorists captured overseas.
He is undoubtedly the highest-profile person now in U.S. custody. Officials have alleged he masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks and was the one who originally suggested such a plot against U.S. interests to bin Laden. Mohammed allegedly admitted his role to U.S. interrogators after facing an extreme interrogation regimen that included waterboarding, or simulated drowning. The CIA has acknowledged that he was subjected to the waterboard but has not detailed any other aspects of his detention.
Shortly after his transfer to Guantanamo in September 2006, when he and 13 others were removed from secret CIA custody, Mohammed told a Combatant Status Review Tribunal that he was responsible for numerous terrorist attacks and plots around the world, including "the 9/11 Operation, from A to Z." He said the plan to hijack airplanes and fly them into major U.S. landmarks was an act of war against an oppressor, and described himself as the operations director.
Mohammed, a Pakistani who is about 44 years old and graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in 1986 with a degree in mechanical engineering, fought the Soviets in Afghanistan after college. He later joined plots around the world against U.S. and allied interests.
Among the other defendants, Binalshibh, 36, of Yemen allegedly was the primary communications intermediary between the Sept. 11 hijackers and al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan
, with close ties to hijacker Mohamed Atta, whom he met in Hamburg in 1995. According to the Sept. 11 Commission, Binalshibh developed strong feelings that Muslims should pursue jihad against what he perceived to be a "Jewish world conspiracy."
Binalshibh allegedly worked with Khalid Sheik Mohammed on follow-up attacks on western nations, including a plot to hijack airplanes in England. He did not participate in, and did not show up for, an earlier status hearing at Guantanamo.
Hawsawi allegedly helped finance the Sept. 11 attacks, working with Mohammed to move money to the hijackers and to help facilitate their travel to the United States. Hawsawi, 39, of Saudi Arabia
allegedly told U.S. interrogators that he bought airplane tickets for some of the hijackers in the United Arab Emirates and was in close contact with Atta in the days before the attacks, receiving money transfers from him, according to an affidavit filed in federal court as part of the case against Zacarias Moussaoui.
Ali, 29, of Pakistan is Mohammed's nephew and a cousin of convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. U.S. officials allege that he helped carry out the Sept. 11 attacks by moving money to the hijackers and acting as a travel facilitator. Ali, in tribunal hearings at Guantanamo in March 2007, said he was a businessman with no connection to al-Qaeda, and Mohammed wrote a declaration asserting Ali's innocence. He was arrested in April 2003, when officials believe they disrupted a plan that Ali was shepherding to hijack airliners in London.
Also part of the alleged conspiracy is Attash, a Yemeni who is accused of taking part in the Sept. 11 attacks by trying to obtain a U.S. visa, by conducting reconnaissance on U.S. airliners in Asia to assess in-flight security, and by helping to identify potential hijackers.
Bin Attash, who was purportedly a bodyguard for bin Laden and a jihadist fighter, lost his right leg during a battlefield accident in Afghanistan in 1997. At his tribunal hearing at Guantanamo in March 2007, bin Attash said he planned the October, 2000 USS Cole bombing operation and took part in planning the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.