‘I want to look evil in the eyes’
9/11 survivors and victims’ families were in Guantánamo Bay this week for the latest controversial pretrial hearings of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other men accused of the World Trade Center attacks
Charged with terror: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the Guantánamo courtroom. Illustration: Janet Hamlin/AP
Bearing witness: Emma Barker-Lasar, whose great-uncle died at the north tower of the World Trade Center, and Joe Torrillo, a retired New York firefighter who was injured when the towers fell. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Bearing witness: Glenn Morgan, whose father was killed at the World Trade Center, and Linda Gay, whose husband was on the aircraft that hit the north tower. Photograph: Simon Carswell
As she sits in the military court in Guantánamo Bay, Linda Gay holds a photograph of her late husband, Peter, and eight-year-old daughter. The photo was taken on September 9th, 2001.
Peter Gay flew to Los Angeles every Tuesday for his work as an executive at a company that made weapons for the US military. He was on the American Airlines Flight 11 that hijackers flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.
Gay is among family members of 9/11 victims and those injured in the attacks who are attending the latest pretrial hearings of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the September 2001 attacks, and of four other alleged co-conspirators at the US naval base in Guantánamo, in Cuba, this week.
This is her first time seeing the men accused of the deaths of her husband and of 2,975 other people. “All I want to do is look evil in the eyes,” she says beforehand.
Mohammed is the first of the five defendants whom two US soldiers lead into the purpose-built courtroom before 9am on Monday. Much thinner than the photograph of the dishevelled man captured in his native Pakistan in 2003, he wears a green camouflage jacket over his white salwar kameez – traditional Pakistani clothes – marking him out as a military combatant.
Mohammed is said to place great importance on his appearance. In earlier court hearings he complained about how a courtroom sketch artist had drawn his nose. More distinctive than his clothes is his burnt-orange beard, which he dyes using berries and fruit juices from his meals in the CIA-run Camp Seven at Guantánamo.
Mohammed is followed into court by the four other accused, each accompanied by two soldiers. The accused are Walid bin Attash, who is from Yemen; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, also from Yemen; Ammar al Baluchi, a Pakistani citizen; and Mustafa al Hawsawi, from Saudi Arabia. A chain bolted to the floor lies below their chairs in case they become unruly. Previous hearings were characterised by outbursts from the men. One defendant tore off his clothes.
As the hearings progess, the men behave differently. Mohammed is alert and focused, consulting regularly with his lawyer. Bin Attash appears introverted, hiding most of the time under his white head-dress and occasionally thumbing through a magazine.
Bin al-Shibh, who is accused of being a 9/11 organiser, veers from attentive to bored. Behind him, al Baluchi, Mohammed’s nephew who allegedly acted as a money courier to the hijackers, talks constantly with his lawyers. In the back row, al Hawsawi, whom prosecutors believe sent money to the hijackers, seems aloof, at the opposite end of a desk from the one lawyer representing him.
Each man wears mostly white, except for the military attire worn by the front three. In the fluorescent-lit courtroom the bright clothing stands out against the washed-out greys of more than a dozen soldiers guarding them.
They are respectful of the proceedings, but not enough to recognise the authority of the military judge. Each time Col James Pohl leaves the courtroom everyone except the five men stands.
The court accommodates their prayer time, usually over a lunchbreak. On Thursday the men pray on their mats in court. The audio feed broadcast to the public gallery is on a 40-second delay, so the judge can censor any classified or secret details revealed suddenly in court. On Thursday the feed briefly picks up one man reciting “Allahu Akbar” – “God is greater” in Arabic – as he prays.
Watching from the public gallery on Monday, Glenn Morgan stands transfixed. For the first time he can see the men accused of planning the attacks that killed his father. Richard Morgan was on an emergency-response team working with the New York fire department when he was killed. Glenn says he is staring because he wants to log as much detail as possible in that moment. The demeanours of the men remind him of a group of high-school students, each with his own distinct personality, he says.
Al Fuentes, a New York firefighter who was injured when the Twin Towers fell, also stands spellbound in the gallery, gazing at the accused through three panes of soundproof glass. “I was trying to get a memory,” he says afterwards. “I got a lot of details.”
No one at Guantánamo, the naval base leased from Cuba for more than a century, will talk about Camp Seven. “Camp Seven is Fight Club,” says a US navy spokesman, Capt Robert Durand. “We can’t talk about Fight Club.”
The camp contains the US military’s so-called high-value detainees. They include the five men charged with the 9/11 attacks. It is just over a year since the five were charged through the military commission system, a court last used to try German war criminals after the second World War.
They were originally charged at the military tribunal late in the presidency of George W Bush. In December 2008 they indicated that they would be willing to plead guilty without a trial. Bush’s reason for setting up the Guantánamo military commissions – that prisoners would be unable to challenge their detention at the naval-base camp – was found to be unconstitutional by the US supreme court in 2008. This derailed the efforts of Bush’s wartime court to prosecute captured enemies in his borderless “war on terror”.