Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, is set to appear before a military judge at a U.S. naval base in Cuba for his arraignment on terrorism charges.
Prosecutors are seeking to convict Mohammed, who is to enter court today for the first time since 2008, and four others for their roles in a conspiracy that used hijacked passenger planes to destroy the World Trade Center in Manhattan and damage the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000 people.
Family members of several victims traveled to the base in Guantanamo Bay, including Cliff Russell, whose brother, Stephen, a firefighter, was killed when the twin towers collapsed. He said yesterday that the accused terrorists should be sentenced to death.
“I’d like them all killed,” said Russell, who is a union engineer and lives in Queens, New York.
The judge, U.S. Army Colonel James Pohl, is to ask the defendants today whether they understand the charges and want legal representation, said James Connell, a lawyer for Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, a Pakistani accused of helping finance the attacks. Defense motions may also be heard, he said.
The defendants are unlikely to enter a plea at the hearing, and a trial may be a year away.
In dueling press conferences last night in Cuba, Connell and the chief prosecutor debated the fairness of the process.
‘Blight on America’
“Military commissions have long been a blight on America’s international reputation and her commitment to the rule of law, and tomorrow’s hearing continues that tradition,” said Connell. Army Brigadier General Mark Martins defended the system as ensuring justice while protecting “lawful sources and methods” used to guard against future attacks.
“Our nation’s secrets are not going to be an open book,” Martins said. “But we are also committed to justice.”
Mohammed, who has claimed that he organized the Sept. 11 attacks and was the operations chief for al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden, previously sought to plead guilty in 2008. Earlier charges against him were withdrawn after President Barack Obama sought to move the case to U.S. District Court in New York.
The administration returned the matter to the military in 2011. The charges were referred to the tribunal last month.
Mohammed, born in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan along the Iran border, grew up in Kuwait. He is accused of proposing the operation to bin Laden in 1996 and training hijackers to hide knives in carry-on bags before boarding the planes. Under his direction, the hijackers learned how to slit the throats of passengers by practicing on sheep, goats and camels, the government claimed.
A U.S. charging document said codefendant Ramzi Binalshibh wired $2,708 to one hijacker, and in late August 2001 sent a message to Mohammed that the hijackers’ leader, Mohammed Atta, had chosen Sept. 11 for the date of the attacks.
Mohammed, who was captured in a 2003 raid in Pakistan, is charged with Aziz Ali, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Mustafa Ahmed Adam al-Hawsawi and Binalshibh for planning and carrying out the attacks that used three jetliners on targets in New York and Washington, and a fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fought back against the hijackers.
The five are charged with conspiring to finance, train and direct the 19 hijackers who seized the planes. The charges include terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war and attacking civilians.
The men may face execution if convicted.
Claimed Pearl Murder
Mohammed has also said he personally killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was decapitated in Pakistan in 2002. The confession came at a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay in March 2007. He hasn’t been charged in the Pearl case.
Mohammed was held by the Central Intelligence Agency until 2006, and then sent to Camp Delta, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay that now holds 169 suspected terrorists.
The CIA has acknowledged that Mohammed was one of three al- Qaeda operatives who were “waterboarded.” He underwent the procedure, which simulates drowning, 183 times, according to government documents. The U.S. has since banned the practice, which critics such as Human Rights Watch call a form of torture.
Use of evidence obtained as a result may be a focal point of defense objections as the trial moves forward.
Lawyers for the five men have filed motions seeking both access to their clients without government monitoring, and public dissemination of statements defendants make in court.
Plans for a closed-door meeting yesterday with the judge and lawyers were scrapped after defense attorneys insisted a transcript of the session be made public, Connell said.
Tara Henwood-Butzbaugh, a relative of a Sept. 11 victim, said yesterday that she traveled to Guantanamo Bay to “bear witness to the process and to seek justice for my brother,” John Christopher Henwood, a bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald who worked on the 105th floor of 1 World Trade Center.
“I have every confidence in the system,” she said.
To contact the reporters on this story: David Glovin at U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at firstname.lastname@example.org; David Lerman at U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at email@example.com