Zacarias Moussaoui, 36, a French national of Moroccan origins, pleaded guilty on April 22, 2005, to six counts of conspiracy to commit terrorism. He says he intended to take part in a post-9/11 air attack on the White House. "I came to the United States of America to be part, O.K., of a conspiracy to use airplane as a weapon of mass destruction, a statement of fact to strike the White House, but this conspiracy was a different conspiracy than 9/11."
He never got to hijack a plane because two of the staff at the flight school where Moussaoui was enrolled, Tim Nelson and Hugh Sims, smelled something fishy and alerted law enforcement. In their first public interview, with Greg Gordon of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the two men tell a fascinating, sinister, and instructive tale.
Moussaoui initially wrote to Matthew Tierney at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in May 2001, using a Hotmail account with the name "zulu mantangotango." His English left something to be desired:
Hello, Mrs. Matt, I am Mrs. Zacarias. Basically I need to know if you can help to achieve my "goal" my dream. I would like to fly in a "professional" like manners one of the big airliners. The level I would like to achieve is to be able to takeoff and land, to handle communication with ATC [air-traffic control]. ... In a sense, to be able to pilot one of these Big Bird, even if I am not a real professional pilot.
By a "Big Bird," Moussaoui meant a 747-400, the latest model Boeing wide-bodied jumbo jet that seats more than 500 passengers. He wanted to fly a simulated journey from New York to London. Admitting to limited flying time in a single-engine Cessna, he wrote, "I know it could be better but I am sure that you can do something. After all we are in AMERICA, and everything is possible."
The Pan Am academy accepted him for instruction and Moussaoui turned up in early August 2001, at its school in Eagen, Minnesota, not far from Minneapolis. Nelson and Sims each found nearly everything about Moussaoui to be suspicious.
- He was a solitary student coming in on his own tab, whereas students learning 747-400s normally come in groups sent by an airline.
- He'd flown mainly a single-engine Cessna, yet he wanted to be trained to fly the largest aircraft in the commercial fleet. Sims asked him, "Why would you spend that much money?" Moussaoui replied that he wanted "a joy ride" or "an ego trip." To his instructor Clancy Prevost, he said it was "an ego thing" he would brag to his friends about.
- He claimed to be an international business consultant in the export-import business but did not fit the part. He lacked a credit card, paying $8,300, most of it in hundred-dollar bills. He was dressed poorly, turning up in a T-shirt, jeans, baseball cap, and tennis shoes. Nelson observed, "OK, ratty jeans, ratty shirt, ratty hat. If he's dropping that kind of money to play, I'm expecting to see Rolexes and Guccis."
- He was a couple of hundred dollars short in paying his bill to Pan Am, undercutting his claims to be a rich businessman.
- He lacked a pilot's license of any sort.
- He had flown for 57 hours at a flight school in Oklahoma, but had yet to fly solo, pointing to a severe incompetence that should have caused him to give up his "dream" of flying.
- Prevost found Moussaoui reluctant to talk about himself but turned the discussion to an aircraft accident involving a flight carrying pilgrims to the hajj in Mecca. Casually, he inquired about Moussaoui being Muslim. An FBI affidavit takes it from there: "Prevost described Moussaoui's reaction as being one of surprise and caution. … When he recovered, Moussaoui informed him that he was not a Muslim."
- When Nelson discovered that Moussaoui is a native speaker of Arabic, his response was, "Oh great, one more strike."
- Moussaoui asked about the possibility of the pilot shutting off oxygen to the passengers.
Prevost described Moussaoui as "just a weird duck," and said "there's really something wrong with this guy." Gordon reports that Alan McHale, Pan Am's manager of pilot training, put all these factors together and called Pan Am's headquarters to vent his suspicions, but a company salesman replied, "Alan, he's a paying customer. He paid. Leave him alone."
Official channels thus closed, Nelson and Sims separately decided to go the unofficial route and on their own initiative each called the FBI's Minneapolis office. Nelson reached Dave Rapp, a counterterrorism agent. "Here's my position," Nelson recalls telling Rapp, "I'm calling on a customer. I'm sticking my neck out. I'm going to either be a hero or a goat. ... If I'm wrong, it's probably going to cost me my job." He said he would "rather call and be wrong than not call and be right."
An hour or two later, FBI agents were at Pan Am's Eagen facility, inquiring about Moussaoui. He was arrested on August 17 on immigration charges. None of the other Al-Qaeda operatives was apprehended and Moussaoui alone sat in jail as his fellow pilot trainees hijacked four airliners on 9/11.
Comments: (1) How can one overlook this little touch, when Moussaoui wrote to the flight school, "After all we are in AMERICA, and everything is possible." Or that he denied being a Muslim. The cynicism and falsehood of the Islamists knows no bounds.
(2) In retrospect, it is awfully convenient that Moussaoui had immigration irregularities; how would law enforcement have kept him from his appointed rounds had he been legally clean?
(3) "I'm sticking my neck out. I'm going to either be a hero or a goat," said Nelson. He was perversely lucky that Moussaoui turned out to be an apprentice terrorist; for had he not been, Nelson could well have lost his job. But the rules need to change so that a person who suspects terrorism in the making does not pay such a price if his hunch turns out wrong.
March 10, 2006 update: As the Moussaoui sentencing trial is underway, new details of the strangeness of this student and the hard choices facing his instructors, emerge. For an example, see today's Los Angeles Times, "Moussaoui Called a Bad Pilot, but Determined to Fly: At trial, a flight instructor calls the terrorist conspirator's skills 'below average.' An FBI agent recounts his suspicions in the days before 9/11"