Pretrial hearing at Guantanamo focuses on tying 5 men to 9/11 attacks

By Oyin Falana and Ricky Zipp, Medill News Service  |  Dec. 6, 2017 at 8:43 AM
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NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- Videos of the World Trade Center towers collapsing as planes crashed into them were front and center during pretrial hearings for alleged 9/11 orchestrator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged co-conspirators.

FBI Special Agent James M. Fitzgerald -- who worked on the agency's 9/11 investigation -- was called Tuesday by the prosecution to testify to the events that took place on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the identities of the 19 hijackers and documents showing their entrance into the United States.

Prosecutors showed videos of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 hitting Towers 1 and 2, as well as videos showing the collapse of the towers.

But most of the time was spent having Fitzgerald identify the 19 hijackers linked to the 9/11 attacks and showing how the men were connected.

The line of questioning was part of the hearing for a defense motion to dismiss the case because of the lack of personal jurisdiction of the Military Commissions Court over the five men.

Walter Ruiz, defense attorney for Mustafa Ahmad al Hawsawi, said the government needed to prove there was a state of "war," or hostilities, between al-Qaida and the United States prior to Oct. 7, 2001 - the day the U.S.-led coalition began military operations in Afghanistan.

According to court documents, "the defense seeks dismissal of this case for lack of personal jurisdiction under the Military Commissions Act of 2009 (MCA), because Mr. al Hawsawi and his co-accused are not 'unprivileged enemy belligerents' over whom this commission would have personal jurisdiction."

The defense teams for Mohammed, Walid bin Attash and Ramzi bin al Shibh disjoined from the motion, leaving al Hawsawi and Ammar al Baluchi, also referred to as Ali Abd al Aziz Ali, moving forward without them. Army Col. James Pohl, the judge presiding over the Military Commission, decided to separate the two defendants.

This week will be spent on al Hawsawi.

James Connell, attorney for al Baluchi, said that he was surprised at the lack of details provided by Fitzgerald's testimony. Specifically, that there was no mention of money transfers, saying that the case against al Baluchi and al Hawsawi is a financial case.

"I don't think that the evidence that the government introduced today is going to help them in any way in proving personal jurisdiction over these men," Connell said.

Prosecutors introduced passenger manifests from the airlines whose planes were hijacked, financial records and letters as evidence showing the connection between the 19 hijackers in an attempt to prove that there was a conspiracy to hijack the four planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa.

The prosecutor leading the testimony also showed the court three clips from two of what he called "pre-death video statements" that Fitzgerald testified were from two 9/11 hijackers.

One of those clips showed video of the USS Cole bombing in 2000 and video of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

The videos, which were published by Al-Sahab, a media publication associated with al-Qaida, cited displeasure with U.S. foreign policy with regard to Israel and the presence of U.S. troops in the Arabian Peninsula as the motive for the attacks.

A photo of a black suitcase with a luggage tag with the name Mohammed Atta was also presented as evidence. Atta is believed to have been the pilot hijacker on Flight 11.

Pilot hijackers were the men who took over the aircraft, while the muscle hijackers primarily subdued passengers and flight attendants.

The suitcase contained a copy of Atta's passport, a folding knife, mace, aviation-related videotapes and a passport of Abdulaziz al Omari. Officials also found a four-page letter written in Arabic, describing the preparation of an operation investigators deemed to be the 9/11 attacks.

In the letter, attackers were advised to "anticipate resistance from the true enemy," and were encouraged to "attack a person by slashing their throat," Fitzgerald said.

He added that an audio recording from one of the planes sounded like "a life-and-death struggle," and a passenger and some crewmembers were killed before the planes were eventually crashed.

Copies of the letter were also found in a Toyota Corolla parked at Washington Dulles International Airport. The car was registered to two of the hijackers, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar.

Ruiz is scheduled to cross examine Fitzgerald on Thursday, but the judge said he could recall the witness to allow for more time to examine last-minute evidence that was provided by the prosecution late Monday.

The prosecution is scheduled to call former FBI agent Abigail Perkins to testify Wednesday.

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