Is Zacarias Moussaoui really the 20th hijacker?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 30 2002 5:05 PM

Is Zacarias Moussaoui Really the 20th Hijacker?

Several news outlets—including Slate—have referred to Zacarias Moussaoui as the alleged "20th hijacker" from Sept. 11. But is he?

Advertisement

No, at least not according to the FBI. "The FBI has not named [Moussaoui] the 20th hijacker. The press has," an FBI representative told Slate.

Investigators first started looking for a possible 20th hijacker in the days immediately after Sept. 11, pointing out that three of the suicide planes had five hijackers, but United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in western Pennsylvania, had only four. The New York Times reported on Sept. 21 that federal investigators thought Moussaoui, who had been in custody since Auguston suspicion of terrorist activities, "might be the missing 20th hijacker."

On Oct. 14, Vice President Dick Cheney confirmed that federal authorities believed they had had a would-be hijacker in custody since August—an apparent reference to Moussaoui. The Times and the Washington Post reported the feds thought Moussaoui was either the 20th hijacker, part of a fifth Sept. 11 team that never came together, or part of a separate hijacking plot planned for a later date.

Then, a U-turn.On Nov. 14, the FBIfingered a new suspect, Ramzi Binalshibh, in a closed-door meeting with federal prosecutors. The Post reported that the feds thought Binalshibh was the real 20th hijacker and that they "have ruled out a previous suspect in that role." Moussaoui, sources said, was more likely part of a planned second wave of biological or chemical attacks. FBI Director Robert Mueller later confirmed that there was "reason to believe [Binalshibh] may well have been another hijacker—whether the 20th or not, who's to say?" Asked if Moussaoui had been ruled out, Mueller said the bureau had not ruled out anyone.

With all this confusion in the air, the papers retired the term "20th hijacker" until Dec. 12, when, ignoring the November developments, they dragged it out to report Moussaoui's federalindictment. The indictment draws parallels between Moussaoui's activities in the months prior to the Sept. 11 hijack, and Moussaoui is charged with, among other crimes, conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy and destroy aircraft. But it does not specifically refer to Moussaoui's intended role in the attacks or say whether he was supposed to be aboard United Flight 93.

This week, Time reports that FBI officials continue to believe Moussaoui was part of a separate suicide mission from the Sept. 11 hijackers because "there is no hard evidence that any of the 19 hijackers communicated with Moussaoui, and he showed up for flight school months after the others had completed their training."

Kate Taylor is the arts reporter at the New York Sun and the editor of an anthology of essays about anorexia, Going Hungry, which will be published next spring.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Culturebox

The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 23 2014 1:51 PM Is This the ISIS Backlash We've Been Waiting For?
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 3:23 PM This Is What Bette Midler Covering TLC’s “Waterfalls” Sounds Like
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.