More than a decade after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people, America is about to get its first trial of men U.S. officials say were behind the planning.
The self-proclaimed mastermind of the terror plot, Khalid Sheik Muhammad, is set to appear before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay on May 5 to be formally charged with a raft of crimes that carry a penalty of death.
Four men accused of being Muhammad's co-conspirators will simultaneously be charged at the May 5 hearing, which will mark the start of a joint military trial that was delayed for years by a White House leadership change and fierce disagreement over where and how to try the accused.
Along with Muhammad, a 46-year-old Kuwaiti citizen, the defendants are Muhammad's 34-year-old Pakistani nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali; Yemeni citizens Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, 39, and Walid bin Attash, 33; and 43-year-old Saudi national Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, the criminal charges against the five include terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians, and destruction of property in violation of the law of war.
Taken together, the charges form the government's case that the men conspired to finance and train the 19 hijackers who carried out the simultaneous attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. If convicted, all five could be sentenced to death.
The hearing has attracted enormous interest from international media. Pentagon officials say some 600 press applications were received for the 60 available spots.
Reporters will watch proceedings from a rear observation room inside the large, windowless courtroom that was specially built for the 9/11 suspects' trial. Families and friends of victims will be able to watch a live broadcast of the proceedings at a handful of locations around the country set up by the military. The audio feed will be on a one-minute delay so that intelligence officials can censor any classified information that comes out during the proceeding.
Long Time Coming
This is not the first time the 9/11 suspects have been summoned to court. They made their first joint appearance before a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal in the summer of 2008. At that appearance, Muhammad -- who had spent five years in U.S. custody -- said his court-appointed lawyers were part of then-President George W. Bush's "crusade war against Islamic world" and announced that he would represent himself.
He also told the military judge that he wanted to be put to death, saying: "This is what I want. I'm looking to be a martyr for long time."
Muhammad had confessed a year earlier, taking responsibility for the entire attack. A Defense Department transcript of a 2007 hearing quotes him as saying, "I was responsible for the 9/11 operation from A to Z."
In December 2008, he and his four co-defendants told a judge that they wanted to confess (again) and plead guilty. But the following month, Barack Obama was inaugurated president. He immediately stopped all pending cases in the Bush-era military commission system and announced his intention to close Guantanamo Bay.
Fierce opposition from Congress to the transfer of foreign terror suspects to U.S. prisons quickly killed that plan. Lawmakers even passed a bill blocking the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the mainland.
Obama's attempt to phase out the Bush-era military commission system and move the trial of the 9/11 suspects to a federal criminal court was also thwarted by Congress. Instead, the White House had to settle with reforming the military commission system.
Death Penalty An Option?
The 9/11 trial's chief prosecutor, U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, has made it clear that military law prohibits any evidence obtained through torture to be used in trial, which means that statements Muhammad made to his interrogators might not be allowed in court.
That's because after he was captured in 2003, he passed through three secret CIA prisons where U.S. officials have acknowledged that he was frequently water-boarded -- a simulated drowning technique widely condemned as torture.
The 11-member U.S. prosecution team will also rely on testimony from Majid Khan, Muhammad's former deputy, who accepted a plea deal that requires him to testify against other terror suspects.
Should Muhammad and his alleged co-conspirators plead guilty at the May 5 hearing, that won't be the end of the legal proceedings. Defense lawyers are expected to use procedural tactics to delay what would be a shortened trial before sentencing is handed down.
Chief prosecutor Martins could also decide against requesting the death penalty, thereby denying the five men the opportunity to become martyrs for Al-Qaeda's cause.