Alleged 9/11 architect: Martyr me

A group of alleged senior al Qaeda leaders -- held secretly by the United States and interrogated since 2003 -- appeared Thursday before a war court judge.

06/06/2008 12:01 AM

09/08/2014 5:41 PM

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- One by one, the U.S. military brought five accused 9/11 co-conspirators before a war court judge Thursday, and each one rejected his free-of-charge American lawyers. Two said they welcomed death.

''In Allah I put my trust,'' said reputed al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

Asked by the trial judge whether he understood that conviction could earn him a death sentence, Mohammed replied: ``This is what I wish -- to be martyred.''

It was the first appearance of the alleged senior al Qaeda leaders, whom the United States has held secretly and interrogated overseas since their capture in 2003.

They are accused of conspiring with Osama bin Laden to orchestrate the four U.S. airline hijackings that toppled the World Trade Center, shattered the Pentagon and slammed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,973 men, women and children.

All were brought from the prison camps several miles away to the special maximum security war court, and sat one behind the other.

Observers were able to watch the proceedings at special viewing sites, but on several occasions audio feed was muted.

In one instance, Mohammed's nephew, Ammar al Baluchi, sounded like he was about to describe the circumstances of his capture.

The CIA has classified as state secrets the captives' time as ''ghost prisoners'' at clandestine overseas prisons, and the details of their interrogations -- during which Baluchi's uncle was waterboarded.

In another, Yemeni Ramzi bin al Shibh started explaining to the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, why he had been taking ''psychotropic drugs'' since arriving at Guantánamo along with the other men in September 2006.

All the men sat in white tunics with their heads covered. Only Bin al Shibh, 36, was in shackles, with his leg irons bolted to the floor.

NO U.S. VISA

A Yemeni, he allegedly tried to join the Sept. 11 suicide squads, and obtain flight training in Florida, but failed to get a U.S. visa from Hamburg, Germany.

''I've been seeking martyrdom for five years. I tried for 9/11 to get a visa. And I could not obtain that visa,'' Bin al Shibh said in rejecting his defense lawyer. ``If this martyrdom happens today I will welcome it. God is great, God is great.''

The hearing was meant to be an arraignment, a formal reading of the charges in advance of legal motions, discovery of evidence and a proposed Sept. 18 opening of trial.

REMARKABLE DAY

But the day was remarkable -- a 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. court session, including two prayer breaks -- in which each man rejected the two to four military and civilian attorneys sitting beside him.

The director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, watched from the spectators gallery in a fury. He had been building a death penalty defense fund and pool of criminal defense lawyers to help the military lawyers.

''It was one of the saddest days in American jurisprudence,'' he said. 'The word `torture' was used so abundantly and the legal process continued.''

He blamed Pentagon haste to get the men to trial before the end of the Bush administration. Defense lawyers were not given sufficient time to forge attorney-client relationships ''with men who were tortured for five years,'' before Thursday's arraignment, he said.

The Bush administration says it does not torture.

Some of the men rejected the legitimacy of commissions, in which U.S. military officers serve as judge and jurors. Saudi Mustafa Hawsawi, who allegedly funneled funds for the terror plot, went last and appeared to be echoing the others who came before him.

Kohlmann ruled that three understood their rights enough to serve as their own attorneys -- Mohammed, 43, known to the CIA as KSM; his nephew, Baluchi, who spoke near-perfect English and explained he was qualified as a ''Microsoft-certified computer engineer''; and Waleed Bin Attash, 30, a Yemeni who allegedly trained some of the 9/11 hijackers at an Afghanistan camp.

At one point, after earning the right to defend himself, Bin Attash interjected with a question: ``If we are executed, will we be buried in Guantánamo or sent back to our home countries?''

Kohlmann didn't answer.

Mohammed struck a radical Muslim note in rejecting the court.

''I will not accept anybody, even if he is Muslim, if he swears to the American Constitution,'' he said, vowing to follow Islamic shariya and scorning the U.S. Constitution ``because it allows for same sexual marriage.''

The nephew, accused of sending money to the suicide squads, sounded more secular in his repudiation of the free legal services.

`NOT A CRIMINAL'

''I am in the wrong court. I am not a criminal. My case is political,'' he said. ``Even though the government tortured me free of charge for all these years, I cannot accept lawyers under these circumstances.''

Kohlmann withheld a decision on whether to let Bin al Shibh and Hawsawi act as their own lawyers, like the others, while keeping their Pentagon-appointed counsel as legal advisors.

Hawsawi's attorney, Army Maj. Jon Jackson, told the judge that he believed his client was intimidated by the others. He asked that his trial be severed from the others.

All the men had grown beards in captivity.

But Mohammed's appearance was the most striking. The Pakistani looked 20 years older than the disheveled man in a T-shirt who was rousted from his bed in the widely published photo from his 2003 capture. This Mohammed was tidily attired in pristine white tunic and turban -- and had grown a massive, mostly white, bushy beard that reached his chest.

He spoke in the broken English he learned as an engineering student in his 20s in North Carolina.

The eavesdrop-proof courtroom was specially designed to mute the alleged terrorist's audio feed, if they divulged national security secrets such as their treatment in CIA custody.

The CIA director, Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, has confirmed agents employed a controversial technique called waterboarding on Mohammed. But he has not said where, nor has he specified other special interrogation tactics.

''I do not mention the torturing. I know this is a red line,'' Mohammed told the judge.

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About Carol Rosenberg

Carol Rosenberg

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Carol Rosenberg reports on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the place, policy, people, war court.


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