50 years ago today, the World Trade Center’s twin towers debuted as the tallest buildings in the world.
Standing at 1,368 and 1,362 feet, about 110 stories each, they surpassed the height of the Empire State Building, which — until then — was the tallest building in New York. The ceremonial opening of the twin towers in April,1973 followed seven years of construction and more than a decade of planning. The towers, which cost over a billion dollars to build, completely transformed 16 acres of Lower Manhattan into an international business hub.
But, as most of you know, those towers were brought down in September 2001, when 19 militants associated with the Islamist extremist group al-Qaida hijacked four airplanes and flew two of them into the twin towers. The other two planes flew into the Pentagon, and one crashed outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the attacks, with more than 2,700 of those deaths happening at the Twin Towers.
Even though the towers are gone, the legacy of the World Trade Center and the people who died on 9/11 lives on — as do the efforts to get justice for these attacks.
In this episode, we wanted to examine where the case against the alleged accessories in the 9/11 attacks stands today. You might not have realized it but, five primary suspects accused of funding, training and supporting the attacks have yet to face trial more than two decades later. They’ve remained in U.S. custody since 2002 and 2003 and have been held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba — also known as Gitmo — for over a decade.
The efforts to bring them to trial have been plagued with problems.
But before we dig into those, let’s get a quick rundown of who we’re talking about.
The first suspect is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of having conceived and overseen the 9/11 plot. Then there’s Walid bin Attash, also known as Khallad, who stands accused of training some of the hijackers in hand-to-hand fighting, researching flights to hijack, and testing U.S. security systems for air travel.
The third suspect, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, is accused of organizing the hijacker cell and funding the attack.
Ammar al-Baluchi is named in the charges as Abd al Aziz Ali. As suspect number four, he stands accused of providing money transfers to hijackers.
The fifth suspect, Mustafa al Hawsawi, has been accused of helping the attackers with finances and planning.
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Collectively, they face charges of conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war, and terrorism. The defendants were arraigned in May 2012. More than a decade later, talks have gone from a prospective death penalty to attempts at a plea deal to have them serve life in prison instead.
Robert Goldman is a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law. He formerly lent his expertise to the UN, working in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
"I think it's going to be dragged on and on and on," Goldman said.
Goldman spoke with Scripps News about why the case has been stuck in the pre-trial phase. One of the biggest reasons, he says, is the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used to get information from the suspects. The phrase has come to be known as a euphemism for torture.
"The problem is you got dirty hands. These people were tortured at the hands of agents of the United States. And now those same agents that is, wants to try these people before a military commission. It's very, very problematic," he continued.
As part of America’s "War on Terror" following the September 11 attacks, the CIA began what’s known as a "black sites" program. They operated these secret sites between 2002 and 2008.
Arie Perliger is a professor and director of security studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. She told us how these sites became places to torture suspected terrorists, including the five we mentioned earlier.
"The Black sites system was basically a collection of sites that were, which in many cases were actually run by foreign intelligence organizations or foreign militaries in collaboration with the American intelligence agencies in order to interrogate, in order to detain, to put pressure on individuals that were associated or at least were perceived as associated with those terrorist organizations," Perliger said. "9/11 was a traumatic event to the American intelligence community. And in many ways, also to the U.S. government. It was very clear that we have substantial deficiencies in understanding the landscape of Jihadi extremism and terrorist organizations in general. And in order to address those deficiencies, the government basically provided a lot of freedom and a lot of flexibility for our intelligence community to use various measures in order to catch up as quickly as possible."
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Historians and experts have debated whether another terror attack on the World Trade Center — the deadly bombing in 1993 that killed six people and injured more than a thousand — should have alerted authorities that an attack like 9/11 was coming. But Perliger says it wasn’t until 2001 that officials were forced to truly reckon with international terrorism.
Both Perliger and Goldman pointed to a series of laws that were passed early on after 9/11 as a sign that the U.S. was scrambling to get a grip on international terrorism and still learning how to respond to it. One example they point to is the Patriot Act, passed just 45 days after the attack with near unanimous support in both the Senate and the House. The act made it easier for the government to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reports, and track the general activity of people in America without a judge’s approval.
"Large parts of that of that piece of legislation directly violate basic constitutional rights. Many people would argue that the Fourth and Fifth Amendment were directly challenged By the Patriot Act," Perliger said.
According to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2003 and 2006, the FBI issued more than 192,499 National Security Letters, or NSLs, to gather such information. These are basically formal letters the FBI would send demanding specific information from individuals, including phone and bank records – sometimes asking for more information than the Patriot Act entitled it to. Those nearly 200,000 letters led to one terror-related conviction, which would have occurred even without the Patriot Act. The act also allowed tougher punishments for terrorists and their accomplices, whether inside or outside the U.S.
"You know, there's an old expression that if you if you're going to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. And if that meant, you know, you had to torture a couple of terror suspects in order to find out about where the next attack would take place, so be it. And and that was the mentality that prevailed," Goldman said.
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Some of the details of the torture are incredibly disturbing. Examples include: waterboarding, starvation, sleep deprivation, physical beatings, and extremes like "rectal rehydration," which involved placing a water pipe in a suspect’s rectum, a technique described in declassified CIA documents as "a means of behavior control."
Now, back to how this relates to the alleged terrorists facing charges for 9/11: Our experts tell us it’s under these terrible conditions that a lot of the information we now know about foreign terrorism, including the 2001 attack, was gained. The terror suspects’ defense lawyers and human rights advocates argue those conditions go against the Geneva Conventions, the international treaties that regulate how governments and militaries treat prisoners of war.
The government is aware that circumstances of these interrogations could make those CIA findings useless in a trial context. That’s why starting in 2006, a so-called "clean team" of FBI interrogators set out to replicate the CIA's findings and get the suspects to share the same information without the pressure of torture. They claimed to have spent 16 months building a rapport with the suspects. Reporting from NBC said the suspects had access to food when hungry and even got Starbucks coffee.
But various studies have shown the negative effects of physical intimidation and force during interrogations, which raise concerns of false confessions and planted memories something the suspects' lawyers have repeatedly emphasized. Defense attorneys have also argued based on federal documents that they received in discovery, that the so-called "clean team's" findings were still tainted due to the CIA also being involved in those "clean" interrogations. The lawyers have tried to make that FBI evidence inadmissible, but the issue remains a matter of dispute delaying the trial.
The CIA, in its own defense, says the black sites program helped produce "evidence that helped avert potential strikes against the U.S." and helped it gain critical information about al-Qaida. But a three-year investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012 found that prisoners held and tortured at these sites "did not help the CIA find Osama bin Laden." The Senate also found these sites "often were counterproductive in the broader campaign against al-Qaida."
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Nevertheless, after facing this torture, nearly 800 people were brought to Gitmo, which opened in 2002 to house suspected terrorists. The five main suspected accessories in the 9/11 case were brought there in September 2006. Its where these men were expected to stand trial in a military court, but that came with its own problems.
"These court still, if you want to call them a court, do not offer all of the procedural, substantive guarantees that are required by human rights law to which the United States is subject. And that is regrettable," Goldman said.
Part of the procedural guarantees Goldman’s referring to is the writ of habeas corpus, the right of a detained person to face a judge and either be given a valid reason why they're being detained or be released. The men who’ve passed through Gitmo over the years never got this opportunity.
"They virtually disappeared people and they took them to these black sites where they were subjected to interrogation," Goldman said.
Several of the lawyers involved in the defense of Guantanamo detainees have brought up this lack of due process by the U.S. government in the arrest and subsequent detention and torture of their clients as grounds for dismissal of their cases.
Now, you may be wondering: why aren’t these men just brought to the U.S. to face trial in a federal court? It’s a worthy question considering U.S. federal courts have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases since 9/11. But that wouldn't work here — partly because U.S. law prevents Gitmo prisoners from entering the country.
There are a lot of other reasons for the delays too. These include changes in judges – there have been four separate ones to grace the bench since 2012 — trouble finding a fair jury, and changes in defense lawyers. Most recently, just before jury selection was scheduled to finally start in January 2021, a new defense lawyer hired the year prior requested two and a half years to prepare his case, throwing more uncertainty onto the timeline for resolution of this decades-long case, and the ability to bring justice to the 2,997 victims listed in it.
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These delays and similar problems with the cases of at least 26 other detainees remaining at Gitmo have delayed any effort to completely close the prison facility, something that Democratic administrations have been trying to achieve since at least 2009.
"As long as we don't solve this challenge, we cannot really close Guantanamo Bay, something that President Obama almost a decade ago promised to do," Perliger said.
As for where efforts now stand, we know that the focus has shifted to either transfer or release many of the Gitmo detainees. Reporting from NPR shows that in roughly the past two months, President Joe Biden has released four Guantánamo prisoners – Two of them were sent to Belize and Saudi Arabia, and the other two to Pakistan. While his administration is ramping up its efforts to negotiate prisoner transfers, it hasn’t been an easy task.
"It's the problem of how do you get another country, you know, to take people whom we have labeled as the worst of the worst," Goldman said.
As for the five 9/11 suspects: plea bargain talks, which first began in March 2022, still remain in limbo. Our experts flagged that if things continue to drag on, there’s a possibility the suspects could also die in custody.
The families of the victims are waiting to learn the fate of the alleged accessories to one of the worst terror attacks in this country's history. But while all that plays out, it’s important to note that the threat to the U.S. from terrorism itself has evolved too – now coming largely from domestic extremist groups.
"And we've seen that in January 6. We've seen that in Charlottesville, in the Unite the Right rally. But also we see that by just looking at the numbers, when we see, for example, that the number of violent incidents initiated by far right groups or far right ideologies jumped by 300% just in the last year," Perliger said.
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