New York – The details of the criminal charges against the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four other defendants became moot for a civilian jury when they were finally made public Monday, just as Attorney General Eric Holder was announcing the men will be prosecuted at a military tribunal instead of in a courthouse just blocks from the World Trade Center site.
U.S. District Judge Kevin Duffy signed an order dismissing the indictment against Khalid Sheik Mohammed as he unsealed the Dec. 14, 2009 document, signed by U.S. attorneys Preet Bharara for the Southern District of New York and Neil H. MacBride for the Eastern District of Virginia, along with a grand jury foreperson whose name was blacked out.
The document describes how the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were planned, practiced and carried out by hijackers following Osama bin Laden’s edicts to kill Americans and use a “jihad” to release the “brothers” in jail “everywhere.”
It said al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden and Mohammed, met in Afghanistan in early 1999 to plan the attacks to cause “maximum casualties and destruction.” After a quick study of how to evade airline security, the first 9/11 hijackers were arriving in the United States in January 2000 to begin flight training so they could fly jumbo jets. By late August 2001, Mohammed learned of the date for the attacks and notified bin Laden, the indictment said.
The indictment was originally filed a month after Holder announced his intention in November 2009 to send Mohammed and the others from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Manhattan courthouse for trial. The language used in it to describe the history of al-Qaida was identical in parts to that used by prosecutors in the indictment of bin Laden and others in the August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Those attacks killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.
In the Sept. 11 indictment, prosecutors gave a bare-bones, factual description of what they believe Mohammed and his co-conspirators did to plan and carry out the attacks. The indictment said Mohammed suggested the plan in or before 1999 to bin Laden. At one point, it described how Mohammed taught the hijackers to use short-bladed knives to overtake airline crews, something he had practiced with them by using knives to kill sheep and camels.
The document ends with 35 pages listing 2,976 names of those who died as a result of the hijacking of four airliners, two of which were flown into the trade center, one of which struck the Pentagon and a fourth that was smashed into a Pennsylvania field as its passengers tried to take back control of the plane.
The 10 counts described in the 80-page document charged Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Al-Hawsawi with: conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, conspiracy to commit violent acts and destroy aircraft, violence on and destruction of aircraft, conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, aircraft piracy, two counts of murder of a U.S. officer and employee and destruction of commercial property. Only the conspiracy to kill Americans charge did not carry the potential for the death penalty.
The indictment portrayed bin Attash as a key conspirator. It said bin Attash, so closely associated with bin Laden that he had served on his security detail, collected information on matters related to airport and airplane security measures. It noted that he carried a pocket knife as a test in one of the legs of his journey when he traveled first class between Bangkok, Thailand, and Hong Kong on Dec. 31, 1999 and Jan. 1, 2000. It said he traveled under a false identification as he approached the cockpit to test security measures on the airplane.
In a December 2009 request to seal the indictment, prosecutors said secrecy was needed because of security concerns — the U.S. Marshals Service did not want the defendants to know when they might be transferred to New York — and the fear that some of the defendants who have evidence in their cells that could be used at trial might destroy it.
Prosecutors said knowledge of when they might be transferred to New York “may lead the defendants to coordinate with each other in ways that undermine both their security and the security of others.”
The indictment described each of the alleged roles of the five men, beginning with Mohammed. It said he first presented the idea of a plot to use airplanes “as missiles to crash into buildings” and later trained the hijackers, including how to conceal short-bladed knives as they went through airport security.
Sometimes, the indictment described the careful preparations that went into planning the attacks, including frequent air travel to test airplane security measures and their ability to circumvent them. It noted that al-Qaida instructed the plot participants to avoid signaling their religious beliefs by shaving their beards, dressing in “Western” attire, carrying no Islamic literature and bringing cologne and cigarettes, which are generally forbidden in Islamic culture.
The indictment said the men were instructed to use fake names and codes in internal communications. For instance, it said, “wedding” was used to describe an impending terrorist operation and “honey” signified explosives and weapons.
Al-Shibh, it said, tried to become one of the pilot hijackers but failed to obtain a visa for entry into the United States and instead managed the plot, sending money to the hijackers. Aziz Ali also sent money to hijackers, the indictment said.
Al-Hawsawi helped the hijackers travel to the U.S. and facilitated their efforts once they arrived, the indictment said.
In court papers, prosecutors said the attorney general had directed that they seek dismissal of the indictment and that the case be referred to the Department of Defense to proceed in military commissions because “a timely prosecution in federal court does not appear feasible.”
It was notable that Duffy signed the order. He presided over the 1990s trials of men charged in the 1993 bombing that killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others.
Those convictions included the mastermind of the bombing, Ramzi Yousef, Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s nephew. Yousef, serving a life prison sentence, was captured in Pakistan in 1995, two years after fleeing the United States on the night of the Feb. 26, 1993 bombing. When he was flown over the towers in a helicopter as he was returned to the United States, an FBI agent pointed to the towers and noted that they were still standing.