NEW YORK — The man who became known as the “20th hijacker” from the Sept. 11 attacks wants to testify in lawsuits filed by victims of terrorism.
The imprisoned Zacarias Moussaoui recently wrote to federal courts in New York and Oklahoma, claiming he can offer inside information about the inner workings of al-Qaida to boost legal claims that the government of Saudi Arabia and financial institutions supported terrorism.
Lawyers have taken him seriously enough to interview him at the Supermax federal prison in Colorado, where he is serving a life sentence. Other observers are skeptical, saying it could be a desperate grab for leniency or relevancy.
“Even if he somehow got to the point where he could testify, there would be a credibility issue,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “Would his testimony be valuable? That’s doubtful.”
The offers are clouded by Moussaoui’s record of changing his account of his involvement in the Sept. 11 plot and his erratic behavior in court.
In court papers filed in Manhattan in September, lawyers for Saudi Arabia said flatly: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had no role in the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
They noted that the United States “has said often and vigorously that Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the fight against terrorism.”
Even so, Moussaoui’s attempts to cooperate in the civil cases stand in contrast to the defiant attitudes of other al-Qaida defendants who have endured after years of confinement without volunteering information except for claims they were tortured.
Moussaoui, who is 46 and refers to himself in writing as “Slave of Allah,” has been a curious character from the moment he was arrested on immigration charges in August 2001 when employees of a Minnesota flight school became alarmed that he wanted to learn to fly a Boeing 747, even though he had no pilot’s license. He was in custody Sept. 11 and pleaded guilty in April 2005 to conspiring with the hijackers to kill Americans.
The plea initially seemed to subdue the mercurial Mous-saoui, who during a three-year legal fight repeatedly insulted the judge and tried to fire his lawyers. But his combustible side re-emerged at his death penalty proceedings, when he surprised everyone by testifying that he had planned to pilot a plane into the White House on Sept. 11.
One psychologist called by his defense lawyers testified that he believes Moussaoui has paranoid schizophrenia. Moussaoui mocked the testimony, shouting as he left the courtroom, “Crazy or not crazy? That is the question.”
Jurors spared his life.
Last month, lawyers in a federal lawsuit against Saudi Arabia were permitted to interview Moussaoui in prison. What was said cannot be shared publicly until the government finishes sifting through the transcript.