Zacarias Moussaoui will spend the rest of his life isolated in an 8-by-10 foot cell in a Florence, Colorado prison — instead of being put to death for conspiring in the 9/11 attacks — and it’s all because of one juror’s vote against killing the only terrorist prosecuted in the history-changing attack on America.
“Everyone assumes he was the 20th hijacker — he’s not and he was never intended to be,” Chuck Rosenberg told a small crowd at Scott Air Force Base on Monday morning, the 16th anniversary of the deadly terrorist attack. He led the prosecution of the case in 2001 as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
In fact, a man named Mohammed al-Qahtani would have been the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, Rosenberg said, had he not been turned away from the country in June 2001 at an Orlando, Florida airport.
Al-Qahtani is now in custody at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Rosenberg added.
The former U.S. attorney said that Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six charges of conspiracy in April 2005. He is the only person who faced federal prosecution in connection to the attacks, in which two planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, a third was flown into the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
Nearly 3,000 people died that day — but Rosenberg said only 1,641 have been officially identified. He said only last month another identification was formally made.
“To this day, the work continues,” Rosenberg said Monday.
The jury trial was to determine Moussaoui’s sentence after he pleaded guilty — whether he would spend life in prison or die by the death penalty.
“Had Moussaoui told the truth on Aug. 16 of 2001, when he was first arrested by the FBI in Minneapolis — had he told the truth, we could have stopped 9/11,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg said the information Moussaoui could have given those FBI agents would have helped authorities identify at least 11 of the terrorists weeks prior to the attack and sparked a heightened security protocol in airports across the country.
On April 13, 2006, Moussaoui — who later was identified in videos next to Osama bin Laden — testified that he thought it was appropriate to kill children in the name of his cause and laughed when he was told how many people died that day.
Rosenberg said Moussaoui also said things like “No regret, no remorse” during the trial.
He said prosecutors successfully convinced a jury of 12 people — chosen from a pool of 800 — that Moussaoui’s lying to the FBI led to at least one death on 9/11.
The jury voted unanimously that he was eligible for the death penalty. However, one juror voted against sentencing Moussaoui to death. The jury sentenced him to life in prison.
Rosenberg served as the chief of staff and senior counselor to the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is now the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is married to the sister of Col. John Howard, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott.
He said Monday it was important for his officer to prosecute this case, if only so he could tell the victims’ story.
Agencies working on the case interviewed approximately 1,500 victims’ families in order to find about 50 willing to testify. Rosenberg presented a few of those victims on Monday:
▪ Sarah Low was a 28-year-old flight attendant from Arkansas and learned to love planes while flying all over Arkansas with her father. She died on American Airlines Flight 11.
▪ Vamsi Pendyla married Prasanna Kalahasti in an arranged union before he perished on American Airlines Flight 11 on his way to see her. Kalahasti was going to testify before she killed herself on Oct. 29.
▪ The Hansons were a family on their way to Disneyland. Their daughter, 2-year-old Christine Hanson, was the youngest person to die in the attacks.
▪ Trisha Smith was a police officer who died when she ran into one of the towers on the morning of the attacks.
▪ Terry Hattons was a captain for the New York City Fire Department and killed in the collapse of the tower. His wife, Beth Petrone was pregnant with his daughter who is now 16.
▪ Danny Suhr was a firefighter who died after someone jumped out of a World Trade Center window and landed on him.
▪ Kevin Williams was a recent graduate from Boston College and was working his first job in finance at the World Trade Center when he died in the attacks.
▪ Khang Nguyen died in the attacks and his widow testified. She told jurors that her son said she wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up so he could see his father in heaven.
“I also ask people to remember Sept. 12, too,” Rosenberg said. “Because on Sept. 12, New Yorkers lined the streets and cheered as firefighters and police officers drove down to the rubble to try and begin the recovery process and the collection of evidence.
“This was a peek at evil — but don’t forget Sept. 10 and Sept. 12 because it’s also about what’s right, what’s good and what’s strong about this country.”
Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Sharpy, the deputy commander of the Air Mobility Command at Scott, spoke briefly after Rosenberg about his experience at the White House on 9/11, arriving there at 8:47 a.m.
“At that point in time we were realized it wasn’t an accident and we were under attack,” Sharpy said.
“I knew then we were a nation at war.”