Is Zacarias Moussaoui really the 20th hijacker?

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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?

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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.

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