WASHINGTON – The government's first indictment in the Sept. 11 attacks details Usama Bin Laden's alleged decade-long quest to kill Americans and sets the stage for a public trial with only one defendant.
Tuesday's grand jury indictment alleges Zacarias Moussaoui worked with 23 unindicted co-conspirators to murder thousands even though the Frenchman of Moroccan descent spent the month before the hijackings in a Minnesota prison for immigration violations.
As Attorney General John Ashcroft meets this week with law enforcement officals in Great Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy, the case sidesteps a thorny issue with some U.S. allies by avoiding a military tribunal. Moussaoui will be tried in a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va.
The military tribunal issue is ``part of the discussion,'' Joannes Thuy, speaking for the presidency of the European Union, said before Ashcroft's arrival.
There is ``not yet total agreement'' on the question of extraditing terrorist suspects to the United States, because the EU won't send someone to face a possible death penalty, said Thuy, spokesman for Belgian Justice Minister Marc Verwilghen.
Moussaoui is charged with six conspiracy charges, four of them carrying the death penalty.
``The United States of America has brought the awesome weight of justice against the terrorists who brutally murdered innocent Americans,'' Ashcroft said in announcing the indictment on the three-month anniversary of the deadly hijackings. ``Al Qaeda will now meet the justice it abhors and the judgment it fears.''
Ashcroft called Moussaoui an ``active participant'' with the 19 hijackers who crashed four jetliners in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Though jailed Aug. 17 in Minnesota after raising suspicions while seeking flight training, Moussaoui had worked in concert with bin Laden associates to carry out the attacks, the attorney general alleged.
The indictment said Moussaoui's activities mirrored those of the 19 hijackers — he attended flight school, opened a bank account with cash, joined a gym, purchased knives, bought flight deck videos and looked into crop dusting planes.
The Bush administration used the indictment — which Ashcroft called a ``chronicle of evil'' — to lay out broad evidence against bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network dating to the 1980s. It identified several urgings the Muslim extremist made over the years to attack U.S. interests.
The indictment alleged bin Laden despised U.S. military involvement in the Gulf War and Somalia, and had tried several times since at least 1992 ``to obtain the components of nuclear weapons.''
``Bin Laden declared a jihad, or holy war, against the United States, which he has carried out through da and its affiliated organization,'' the indictment charged.
Moussaoui faces arraignment Jan. 2 on the conspiracy charges for terrorism, aircraft piracy, destruction of aircraft, use of weapons of mass destruction, murder and destruction of property.
Ramsi Binalshibh, who the FBI says was supposed to be the 20th hijacker, wired $14,000 to Moussaoui from Germany the month before the Sept. 11 attacks. A week later, Moussaoui paid $6,300 in cash to a flight school in Minnesota. Investigators also found telephone numbers for Binalshibh in a notebook belonging to Moussaoui.
Asked whether Moussaoui was supposed to be one of the hijackers, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that ``if you parse the indictment, you will see that Binalshibh attempted four times to come to the United States and was rejected. ... Subsequent to that ... you see Mr. Moussaoui attempting to come to the United States.''
In an initial interview with federal agents, Moussaoui, 33, who is being held in New York, ``attempted to explain his presence in the United States by falsely stating that he was simply interested in learning to fly,'' the indictment stated.
Moussaoui's court-appointed attorney, Donald DuBoulay in New York, said the government ``informed everybody else, except the lawyer of course'' about the indictment.
A senior White House official said President Bush asked Ashcroft several questions about the government's ability to protect intelligence sources during an open trial, then agreed there wasn't a need for a military tribunal at this time.
Former federal prosecutor Lawrence Barcella said federal judges in northern Virginia, home to the CIA, are used to dealing with tricky legal issues that classified information presents. In such cases, the rights of defendants for full disclosure must be balanced against the government's need to protect national secrets.