Saudi captive was happy he helped 9/11 hijackers, says FBI agent who questioned him

Mustafa al Hawsawi posing for the International Red Cross at Guantánamo in a photo that appeared on a Middle Eastern website.
Mustafa al Hawsawi posing for the International Red Cross at Guantánamo in a photo that appeared on a Middle Eastern website.

A self-described Saudi merchant admitted to helping with flights and finances for seven of the 19 men who hijacked planes in the Sept. 11 attacks, a retired FBI agent said Wednesday in testimony meant to demonstrate the former CIA captive is subject to trial at the war court as an accused 9/11 conspirator.

“He indicated he was very happy to have been able to support the brothers who carried out the attack,” former agent Abigail Perkins said of her 2007 interrogation of Mustafa al Hawsawi here, paraphrasing him as saying martyrs were more highly regarded than facilitators like himself.

The agent described the conversation as cordial, professional and non-threatening. But defense lawyers say the confessions were not voluntary, but rather the fruits of more than three years of CIA abuse in the spy agency’s secret prison network before he was delivered to Guantánamo in September 2006.

And in a surprise development, the former 22-year agent who specialized in counterterrorism said she reviewed Hawsawi’s CIA statements before interrogating him. She was part of an FBI “clean team,” created to elicit untainted confessions from men who were waterboarded, beaten, sleep-deprived and subjected to rectal abuse documented in the so-called Senate Torture Report.

But in response to a direct question from the case judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, on whether she used the Saudi’s statements to the CIA to prepare for the interrogation, the agent replied, “review and use, I guess would be hard for me to distinguish.”

Perkins said her intent was to question Hawsawi based on financial documents that made him a person of interest to the FBI within months of the 9/11 attacks, long before Hawsawi’s March 2003 capture in Pakistan in the company of the alleged plot mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

Military Judge Col. James L. Pohl Taylor Jones

Hawsawi’s name had appeared on hijacker flight records, banking and wire documents, establishing his financial link.

Pohl is holding the hearing on a challenge by Hawsawi’s Pentagon-paid defense attorneys, who argue the United States was not at war with al Qaida until after the Sept. 11 attacks, and therefore he cannot be tried at the war court.

Prosecutors argue it began in 1996 with Bin Laden’s “Declaration of War Against the Americans who are Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” a time when Perkins said the FBI began to investigate bin Laden as “a financier in terrorism.”

Prosecutor Clay Trivett spent the morning having Perkins explain documents she collected from the United Arab Emirates before his capture. In them, Hawsawi’s name and phone number appear as the point of contact for flights several hijackers took from Dubai to the United States in 2001. Others, from early September 2001, show hijackers sending Hawsawi a series of wire transfers totaling about $28,000 — apparently unspent advances on expenses — from addresses in Broward County, Florida, where some lived ahead of the attacks, and Boston, where the two planes that hit New York’s World Trade Center originated.

Perkins quoted the Saudi as saying that as the money flowed in, he came to understand that “an operation” would soon happen by “Sheik Osama’s group,” a reference to Osama bin Laden.

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In all, 2,976 people were killed that day in the four plane crashes in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. Five men are charged at Guantánamo as co-conspirators in the attack, and they could be executed if they are convicted.

Hawsawi, 49, has appeared as the least vocal of them in court. He has often voluntarily stayed behind at the clandestine Camp 7 prison, his lawyers say, because he suffers neck and rectal pain from his CIA torture.

In fact, the Saudi waived his Wednesday court appearance and was not watching as Perkins described him as a willing participant in his January 2007 interrogation. She quoted him as saying the Sept. 11 attacks were justified because Jewish people killed Muslims and that the Pentagon was a legitimate military target, as was the World Trade Center as the seat of the U.S. economy.

She also quoted him as justifying the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania because CIA and FBI agents worked there.

Hawsawi told her he was assigned the job of money-handler in the Emirates while working for an al-Qaida media committee in Afghanistan, she said. He headed back on Sept. 11, according to the agent, made his way to Kabul, Afghanistan, and subsequently he congratulated Bin Laden on the attacks.

For the interrogation, the career FBI agent said she did not read Hawsawi the typical Miranda rights to remain silent or consult an attorney. Instead she was given a list of things to tell him and make sure he understood, including that she was independent of any organization that had previously held him, meaning the CIA.

She told him he could stop the interrogation at any time, but he never did until she and her colleagues exhausted their questions in four, seven-hour days of interrogation that included joint fast-food meals.

Judge Pohl asked why she read him no classic rights advisement. She replied that she wasn’t at Guantánamo to carry out a typical law enforcement interview but instead was assigned to question him for the Department of Defense, which had military commissions, the war court.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg