May 21st, 2009
03:59 PM ET
11 years ago

Obama team takes up '20th hijacker' meme

 Zacarias Moussaoui claimed to be the '20th 9/11 hijacker.'

Zacarias Moussaoui claimed to be the '20th 9/11 hijacker.'

WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Obama and his administration are using references to convicted al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui as the would be "20th hijacker" as they try to persuade the public the U.S. civilian court system can put on trial and imprison terror detainees.

"Zaccarias (sic) Moussaoui has been identified as the 20th 9/11 hijacker – he was convicted in our courts, and he too is serving a life sentence in prison," the President said in his speech discussing terrorism.

"The 20th 9/11 hijacker was tried in U.S. courts, and is in a U.S. prison right now," said senior White House adviser David Axelrod in an interview on "CNN Newsroom."

But U.S. officials for some time have not believed he was meant to be part of the actual plot.

In the first years after the 9/11 attacks, some officials did call Moussaoui - who was arrested a month before the attacks - the "20th hijacker."

U.S. officials eventually came to focus on a different suspect. They have believed for several years terror detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani was the individual meant to have been the missing hijacker on Flight 93, which had only four on board. In 2004, members of the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks said it was likely al-Qahtani was supposed to be included in the plot, pointing to the fact hijacker Mohammed Atta was at the Orlando, Florida airport in August 2001 when al-Qahtani arrived, as well as other classified information.

But al-Qahtani was prevented from entering the country by immigration officials. Later, he was arrested and sent to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, where he was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques that were criticized in internal reports.

Moussaoui himself helped to push the idea when he signed letters to the federal judge overseeing his case as the "20th hijacker" and gave contradictory accounts in court about whether he was supposed to take part in the attacks. In the sentencing phase of his trial, Moussaoui testified he was training to fly in a fifth hijacked plane, but also said he didn't know when the 9/11 attacks were supposed to occur.

Testimony from senior al Qaeda operatives was later introduced saying Moussaoui was not intended to be part of the hijackings and described as mentally unstable.

pleading guilty in June of 2005 to terrorism charges, including being part of the 9/11 conspiracy by lying to investigators about his knowledge of al Qaeda, Moussaoui was sentenced the next year to a life sentence.

Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. Brian G, Sugar Land, TX

    Proof! Whare the heck is the proof?

    Hye, I don't mind that the guy is in jail, but would kinda like to see the documented reasons for it.

    May 21, 2009 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  2. JT

    Rush Limbaugh – But he was so strung out on pills that he missed the plane.

    May 21, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  3. Pepou

    These terrorists are criminals and as such should be tried as criminals in civil courts. If Manson can be imprisoned in this country don't tell me that our prisons cannot accommodate Guantanamo prisoners. There is a brand new prison in Harding Montana which is high security and .... empty.

    May 21, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  4. fred

    Obama's approval rating is about to plummet

    May 21, 2009 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  5. Steph

    There are many very dangerous people in super-max prisons. Should we send all of them to Gitmo because we are afraid they will get out and roam about the US hurting Americans? If we can keep Moussaoui and other terrorists, mass murderers, child molesters and other very dangerous people in our high security prisons, we can keep detainees too.

    May 21, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  6. Imarriedmysister in TheOleSouth

    Cheney knew about 9/11 before it happened but said," SO".

    May 21, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  7. Pat F

    So much craziness in this story – where to start?

    Firstly, Moussaoui was too mentally unstable to be the 20th hijacker? Boy, that is a high bar!

    Secondly, why would Obama's so-called Justice Department (really just a political retribution squad) let the facts stand in the way of a good publicity stunt?

    Maybe it's even worse than that – maybe Obama's team is really completely ignorant about our national security matters.

    May 21, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  8. Randy

    The debate between Obama and Cheney was one between:
    1. A Peace lover vs. A Warmonger.
    2. An Effort to achieve peace with Diplomacy First vs. Arrogant Attitude to Rule over other Timid Countries, who do not agree with the US.
    3. An Effort to fight Al Quida in the Afghanistan vs. To have Control over Iraq, Middle east and OPEC.
    4. To try new problem solving techniques vs. Continue with the same failed policies of past 8 years.
    5. Human Rights vs. Torture.
    6. A Sensible, Sharp and Sane Person vs. An Idiot and a Dud.

    May 21, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  9. The Broker.

    The Divine CNN, Will Define when, and where about what?

    May 21, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  10. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    Let's not forget the D.C. sipers who are being held here in Virginia. Send the detainees here. We have the death penalty!!!

    May 21, 2009 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  11. David Evan

    The way the question of what to do with Gitmo prisoners should be asked:

    What rights would you like to have extended to you if you were accused of a crime and your accuser accused you of being a terrorist, a spy, or some similar adversary?

    Suppose it were determined through the evidence and due process that Moussaoui did not commit a crime. Would it be right in any moral sense to condemn him?

    But the evidence and due process prevailed to find the man guilty, and justice has been correctly served, in this case.

    May 21, 2009 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  12. Libertarian

    Why wouldn't we want these guys to be tried and placed in an American prison? How long do you think they would last? Keeping them in a private prison is just another expense the gov't needs to cut.

    I'm baffled why people think putting them in American prison is bad? anyone???

    May 21, 2009 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  13. Brina

    Americans need to stop being such wussies.....Americans wave the flag and wear the flag pin and claim to be the best and the brightest but are afraid of terroist being locked up in a supermax prison......geesh grow a pair.

    May 21, 2009 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  14. Republicans are Facist

    Just kill the terriorists already!

    May 21, 2009 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  15. a southern progressive

    look everyone.. republicans want to keep using other people for their own purposes.. keeping our suspected terrorists in cuba, so when they make their escape, its only cubans who will be the victims.. typical republican elitist arrogance.

    american prisoners should be in american prisons on american soil.

    May 21, 2009 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  16. The Broker.

    And they call themselves Americans. You are diggin the hole deeper CNN. You have so many answers to excuse obama's mistakes.
    He is week. CNN is week. America will be blamed for this Idiot Obama's mistakes. America. (White America)....

    May 21, 2009 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  17. JT

    Randy – Very well said.

    May 21, 2009 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  18. The Broker.

    So I spell the word "Weak" wrong. But how wrong is CNN?

    May 21, 2009 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  19. Harvey Wells

    What president was in charge of protecting our country on 9/11 terror attack ?

    May 21, 2009 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  20. Steph

    Cheney cited the cost to taxpayers if we keep detainees in US prisons as a reason why we shouldn't bring detainees to US prisons. Where does he think the money to run Guantanamo comes from? You, me and every other American taxpayer!!!!

    May 21, 2009 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  21. Obama 2.0

    NIMBY, Ha People are afraid of their own shadow, give me a break.

    May 21, 2009 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  22. Sniffit

    You mean we have an actually convicted terrorist in one of our maximum security prisons HERE IN THE US? Oh my goodness...I'm so very very scared for my safety...that's so much more dangerous than SUSPECTED terrorists being held in our maximum security prisons!!!!! HELP HELP THE SKY IS FALLING!!!!

    May 21, 2009 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  23. Sniffit

    @ The Broker

    Thank you for your racist contribution to the continuing degradation of the GOP.

    May 21, 2009 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  24. Harvey Wells

    Why didn't Pres. Bush protect our country against the 9/11 terrorists ?
    With the proper protection from the Bush Administration the terrorists
    would not have killed innocent Americans !!

    May 21, 2009 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  25. alvino


    You say Obama's approval rating is about to plummet. If that is based on the statements of Lying Dick, I really doubt it.

    May 21, 2009 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
1 2 3