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Roommate: Moussaoui saw jihad as way to paradise

Former roommate testifies via videotape at sentencing trial

From Phil Hirschkorn


Capital Punishment
September 11 attacks
Zacarias Moussaoui

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui told a roommate in Oklahoma that fighting a holy war was the only way to get to paradise, according to testimony at his sentencing trial Tuesday.

Hussein al-Attas, Moussaoui's Oklahoma roommate, testified via videotape that Moussaoui urged him to prepare for "jihad," or holy war.

Al-Attas also said Moussaoui counseled him to travel to Pakistan for terror training, taught him to box and bought him small knives that Moussaoui said would be easy to hide.

"For me, I think jihad is the only way to get to paradise," Moussaoui said, according to al-Attas.

An admitted member of al Qaeda, Moussaoui, 37, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to hijack aircraft and crash them into buildings.

However, he has denied having a specific role in the September 11 terror attacks. The only issue at his sentencing trial is whether he will receive the death penalty or life in prison.

Met at Oklahoma mosque

Al-Attas, a Yemeni national born in Saudi Arabia, said he met Moussaoui at a mosque, the Islamic Society of Norman, Oklahoma.

They became roommates in off-campus housing near the University of Oklahoma, where al-Attas was then a 24-year-old undergraduate and Moussaoui was a 33-year-old student at the Airman Flight School.

Al-Attas portrayed Moussaoui as secretive and paranoid, saying he was told they needed to stick together and should not speak Arabic in public. Moussaoui gave him boxing lessons so he could defend himself, al-Attas said.

"He said [a] Muslim has to be ready any time," al-Attas testified.

In August 2001 Moussaoui persuaded al-Attas to drive him eight hours to Eagan, Minnesota, for 747 jet simulator training, although Moussaoui had not even mastered how to fly a small, single-engine airplane.

Al-Attas found it strange that Moussaoui would go from "A to Z just like this." Moussaoui told him learning the 747 would be "easy" because of its computerized cockpit.

Right before their trip, Moussaoui purchased a pair of hiking boots, binoculars and small knives at an Oklahoma City sporting goods store.

"This blade is small and easy to hide," Moussaoui said, according to al-Attas.

Al-Attas stayed with Moussaoui at the Residence Inn in Eagan, where the FBI took them into custody on August 16, 2001.

Witness talked to FBI

Al-Attas, who was in the United States legally on a student visa, told federal agents that Moussaoui was a religious Muslim who talked about doing harm to nonbelievers, preparing for jihad and extolling martyrdom, FBI agent Harry Samit testified.

Al-Attas, initially suspected of being a terrorist co-conspirator, later pleaded guilty to having made false statements and served about a year behind bars.

Samit told the jury Monday that Moussaoui's false statements about his reasons for attending U.S. flight schools and his international travel impeded his efforts to investigate him.

"Mr. Moussaoui actually threw us off the trail of his real sources of funding and where his actual associates were located," Samit said.

Prosecutors contend the lies Moussaoui told Samit, covering up al Qaeda's conspiracy to hijack and crash planes into buildings, contributed to the nearly 3,000 deaths on September 11, 2001.

The government argues that Moussaoui deserves the death penalty because of those lies and is trying to prove that deaths could have been prevented if Moussaoui had leveled with investigators.

Prosecutors see link to hijackers

Prosecutors have said the telephone, financial and travel records Moussaoui covered up overlapped with records of 11 of the 19 September 11 hijackers.

But Samit's lengthy cross-examination Tuesday may have damaged prosecutors' portrayal of the FBI as equipped to quickly unravel the September 11 plot, even if Moussaoui had told the truth about himself.

Samit described how counterterrorism supervisors at FBI headquarters undermined his efforts to obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings and were unresponsive to his memos suggesting Moussaoui was planning a hijacking.

Even when Samit sought to insert an Arabic-speaking guard into Moussaoui's jail cell to see if Moussaoui might say anything incriminating, FBI headquarters blocked the ploy.

Samit said headquarters seemed "predetermined" to deport Moussaoui to France, where he could be searched more freely, then quibbled over which government agency would pay for the plane tickets.

FBI manager in the dark

One of the FBI's former top counterterrorism managers, Michael Rolince, told jurors Tuesday that information from Moussaoui could have provided agents with leads to possibly stop the 9/11 plot.

Of about 1,000 terrorist threats against U.S. interests in 2001, Rolince said, most involved overseas targets, and only 3 percent dealt with airplanes and airports.

Rolince was called as a prosecution witness, but parts of his testimony also suggested institutional shortcomings at the FBI.

The now-retired Rolince testified that until September 11, 2001, he was not informed about the Minneapolis field office's belief that Moussaoui was a terrorist intent on hijacking airliners.

Rolince said no one told him about the the "hunches and suspicions" of the the FBI agents there. "The case was not anywhere near fully developed," he said.

When he heard about Moussaoui in a passing hallway conversation in August 2001, he was informed the "immediate threat" had been "neutralized."

However, Rolince indicated he had never read the urgent, lengthy memo sent that month by Samit to FBI headquarters.

The defense has tried to downplay the value of any information that Moussaoui could have provided for the FBI's terrorism investigations.

The jury on Tuesday saw a series of threat reports documenting the growing terrorist threat reporting throughout 2001. By August, an FBI advisory stated "a possibility of an attack in the United States could not be discounted."

The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, learned to fly jetliners like the one he crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during seven months at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida.

Susan Hall, the defunct school's office manager, told the jury she had a nickname for the "cold and steely" Atta: "The little terrorist."

Exiting court after the jury left Tuesday, Moussaoui exclaimed, "God Bless Mohamed Atta."

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