Moussaoui 'easy mark' for Islamic extremists

Los Angeles Times/April 24, 2006

Washington -- Zacarias Moussaoui was an easy mark. Young and broke, sleeping in a London shelter, he was ashamed of his past, uncertain of his future. Each day, when he went to the mosque in Brixton, he would run a gauntlet of Islamic extremists.

Eventually, they snared him.

The story of how a down-and-almost-out young Muslim became a self-described member of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot offers insights into the way al-Qaida trolls for recruits and trains them to become suicidal zealots, willing to kill themselves to kill others.

Had he not surrendered to the spell of the radicals, Moussaoui's life might have been different. He had broken away from his impoverished childhood in France, as well as his alcoholic father. He made it to London. He was smart; he earned a master's degree in business.

But that was the road not taken.

At the Brixton mosque, he began wearing military camouflage and black boots. He criticized fellow Muslims as too soft.

"Where's the jihad?" he kept asking, "Where's the jihad?"

From there, joining Islamist guerrillas in Chechnya was not a big step. Nor was signing up for a al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. Or flight school in America.

Moussaoui found his war. Last year, he pleaded guilty to being involved with the Sept. 11 plot. A federal jury in Alexandria, Va., will begin deliberating this week on the legal consequences of his involvement with al-Qaida -- a death row or life in prison without parole.

For government and other analysts who focus on understanding how young men become terrorists, testimony and documents in the sentencing trial offered details about the path men such as Moussaoui have traveled.

Paul R. Martin, an expert on cults, said Moussaoui represents the classic case of a vulnerable young man brainwashed by Islamic radicals in London during the mid-1990s.

"They swept him away," Martin said told the jury last week.

Martin said French Moroccans such as Moussaoui living in Western Europe "just didn't feel like they fit in. They were sort of on the fringes. So when some of them came into contact with these radical elements, they felt for the first time that, 'Wow, I belong. This is my home.'"

Other evidence came from Mohammad al-Qahtani, the so-called "20th hijacker." In a summary of what he has told U.S. interrogators at the prison on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, al-Qahtani described how al-Qaida isolated men like him and Moussaoui and transformed them into automatons for jihad.

They were herded together at training camps, al-Qahtani said, assigned to group tents, cut off from the outside world. One man ruled their life: Osama bin Laden, whom they called "the big boss."

Moussaoui arrived in England around 1995. He was in his late 20s, and enrolled in business school. Fellow student Nil Plant recalled him as friendly and ambitious. Sometimes he could be charming, like when he filled his backpack with Mars bars.

"But he wasn't a proper Arab or a French boy either," she said. "He was sort of stuck in between, belonging to nowhere. He had a lot going for him but nowhere to go."

Abdul Haqq Baker, the imam at the mosque, testified that Moussaoui "came in eager, quick to learn." But outside the front doors were radicals passing out leaflets and warning that Baker and other mosque leaders were too soft. They said the Middle East was aflame, yet mosque leaders sat idly by.

The leaflets announced upcoming militant study groups, including "Victory to Muslims!" and "Why Muslims Are Weak." The radicals showed films of young Muslim boys castrated in Bosnia, their genitals displayed on trays. They derided U.N. troops as "blue hats," and said they used Muslim women as "pleasure girls."

Moussaoui was intrigued and started attending the study circles.

"His affable demeanor, his friendly demeanor changed," Baker said. He erupted into tirades. Asked to calm down, he shouted epithets. "You could see the disdain in his face," Baker said.

Moussaoui went to Chechnya. He turned up at the al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, where he drove young recruits from the airport and back. He trained in explosives and pledged "bayat" -- total loyalty -- to bin Laden.

The CIA report said the camps "provided the isolation and psychological atmosphere necessary to support classic brainwashing techniques." The goal was to turn recruits into "committed operatives who could be trusted to live for several years in the West and still carry out their mission."

Travel to Afghanistan was critical; al-Qaida wanted their young fighters immersed in the "pure Islamic state." Pressures were applied to prevent "backsliding," especially to keep a "second wave" of recruits in line for a follow-up attack after Sept. 11.

Moussaoui, al-Qahtani and many of the Sept. 11 hijackers were at the Afghanistan camps at about the same time. Al-Qahtani described how the system worked at two camps.

The first had a rigorous schedule, where "all students pray" together, rarely leaving each other's sight. "Sometimes," he added, "a head count is done to ensure student accountability."

Bin Laden frequently visited. He gave "sermons, recommendations and advice regarding jihad, the struggle of Islam and bayat," al-Qahtani said. Recruits were encouraged to visit him at home, "a palace with many bodyguards, servants and drivers." They swore allegiance to the "Prince of Jihad."

Al-Qahtani moved to an advanced training camp behind Kandahar Airport, a place called Tarnak Farm. They practiced breaching doors, jumping through windows, and close-quarter combat. They were taught explosives "in case they ever needed to use them."

Al-Qahtani was selected as the 20th hijacker for Sept. 11. But he was turned away at the Orlando, Fla., airport in August 2001 after drawing the suspicion of authorities.

Moussaoui by then had been in the U.S. for eight months. He said he was sent by bin Laden to join the Sept. 11 team. He first took flight training in Oklahoma City.

According to FBI memos, Suhaib Webb, the imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said Moussaoui complained that mosque members were too complacent. Moussaoui took one member of the mosque, Hussein al-Attas, under his wing. Webb said "al-Attas was probably brainwashed" by Moussaoui into planning a trip to Pakistan for jihad.

Instead, Moussaoui was arrested taking jet simulation lessons after he and al-Attas drove to Minneapolis.

Moussaoui said he will be free. But the truth appears different. As far as bin Laden's lieutenants are concerned, evidence presented near the end of the trial suggested the Brixton recruit was used up -- expendable.

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