Zacarias Moussaoui was born May 30, 1968 in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a small fishing community on the Basque coast of France. He is of Moroccan descent and was raised, along with three siblings, by his mother and stepfather.
Moussaoui attended the University of Perpignan in the late 1980s, during which time he began to associate with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Over time, he became increasingly uninterested in his studies but eventually earned a vocational degree.
In 1992 Moussaoui moved to England and attended South Bank University. He grew to dislike British society, which he felt was unwelcoming to immigrants. He eventually graduated with a master’s degree in International Business in 1995.
During his final year at school, Moussaoui fully embraced Islamic radicalism. He began attending lectures presented by al Qaeda affiliate Abu Qatada, and listening to the recruitment tapes of radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. His brother recounts that Moussaoui, at that time, believed that “everyone is against all Muslims,” particularly Jews.
In the late 1990s Moussaoui attended worship services at the Brixton mosque in the London borough of Lambeth. There he met Richard Reid, who in December 2001 would attempt to destroy American Airlines Flight 63 with an improvised bomb hidden in his shoe.
In April 1998 Moussaoui attended al Qaeda’s Khalden terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. In September 2000 he traveled to Malaysia, where he was given $35,000 for expenses and travel documents by al Qaeda and Taliban affiliate Yazid Sufaat. It is believed that the al Qaeda hierarchy was planning to use Moussaoui as a replacement for Ziad Jarrah in the 9/11 hijacking plot; Jarrah had threatened to withdraw from the operation because of tensions amongst the conspirators.
Moussaoui first entered the United States in February 2001 and immediately enrolled for flying lessons at a flight school in Norman, Oklahoma.
In early August 2001, Moussaoui received $14,000 in wire transfers from Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a member of the Hamburg, Germany al Qaeda cell that also included Mohammed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 hijackings. Later that month, Moussaoui used more than half of that money to pay for flight simulator training in the operation of a Boeing 747-400 airliner at the Pan Am International Flying Academy in Eagan, Minnesota.
Curious as to why Moussaoui was interested in purchasing simulator time even while he lacked the most elementary understanding of the Boeing airliner’s systems, Clarence Prevost, the flight instructor assigned to Moussaoui, suspected that the student might be involved in some type of illicit activity. Prevost convinced his supervisors to contact the FBI, which in turn dispatched agents to meet with him.
On August 16, 2001, Moussaoui was arrested by FBI and INS agents in Minnesota and was charged with an immigration violation. At the time of his arrest, he was in possession of flight manuals for the Boeing 747-400, a flight-simulator computer program, binoculars, two knives, fighting shields, a laptop computer, and the Dusseldorf, Germany phone number of the aforementioned Ramzi bin al-Shibh.
While in custody, Moussaoui was interrogated by FBI agent Harry Samit, who subsequently warned his supervisors more than 70 times that the suspect was a terrorist who was plotting to hijack an aircraft. Samit sought desperately to secure a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings, especially his laptop, but was repeatedly turned down by FBI superiors.
As a result, the details which Moussaoui knew about the hijacking plot were never fully discovered and the atrocities of 9/11 could not be prevented. According to his fellow inmates, Moussaoui cheered from his prison cell upon learning of the 9/11 attacks.
In a “statement of facts” compiled by prosecutors and signed by Moussouai, he admitted that he had known about a general plot to hijack planes and fly them into prominent U.S. buildings, and that he had lied to federal agents after his arrest in August 2001 to avoid exposing the plot.
On April 22, 2005, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six felonies related to his collaboration with the 9/11 hijackers; four of those charges carried the death penalty. He also reported that Osama bin Laden had personally instructed him to fly an airliner into the White House.
Later that month Moussouai changed his story, this time claiming that he actually had not been involved in the 9/11 plot. Rather, he explained, he had hoped to liberate the incarcerated Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, mastermind of 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and fly him to Afghanistan in a hijacked Boeing 747.
In March 2006 Moussouai again altered his tale. This time he testified that he and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid had planned to crash a hijacked airplane into the White House on 9/11. When asked to explain the inconsistencies in his various statements, Moussouai replied, “You’re allowed to lie for jihad.”
In the midst of the sentencing phase of his trial, Moussaoui angrily shouted “I am al-Qaeda! They [his attorneys] do not represent me; they are Americans.”
On May 3, 2006, a federal jury rejected the death penalty option and instead sentenced Moussaoui to life in prison with no possibility of parole. On the verdict forms which the jurors subsequently filled out, they indicated that their decision to eschew the death penalty was influenced by the defense attorneys’ claim that Moussaoui had experienced a troubled upbringing in a dysfunctional immigrant Moroccan family in France, and that he had lived for extended periods in orphanages. After the judge and jury left the courtroom, Moussaoui thrust his fists in the air and shouted: “America, you lost, you lost! Novak [one of the three government prosecutors], I won!”
On May 23, 2006, an audio recording by Osama bin Laden surfaced in media reports. On that tape, the al Qaeda kingpin claimed that Moussaoui had had no connection to the 9/11 attacks. “I am the one in charge of the 19 brothers and I never assigned brother Zacarias to be with them in that mission,” said bin Laden.
Moussaoui is currently serving a life sentence at the Federal ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.